#cyberbullying | #cyberbully | How to protect employees from online harassment

In 2020, security startup Verkada made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The California-based surveillance service provider faced backlash over allegations that some of its employees were using Verkada’s own technology to harass their colleagues.

If you missed the story, here’s a quick recap: A number of male employees took photos of female employees with the company’s facial recognition cameras and then made sexually explicit jokes about them on a private Slack channel, #RawVerkadawgz. Instead of firing the offending employees, the company merely reduced their stock holdings, a decision that infuriated former and current employees. At least one staff member quit, citing “toxic [company] culture.” Eventually, the company co-founder and CEO Filip Kaliszan terminated the three employees who instigated the incident.

Verkada is just one example of online abuse in the workplace. There have been countless cases of online harassment across a range of industries, and incidents are not always reported. However, it’s not just other employees victimizing vulnerable groups within a workforce. Workers can also be abused by anonymous individuals in their personal lives, and the effects of this on their morale and productivity at work can be staggering.

Read more: How to protect your organization from internal and external threats to cybersecurity

Online harassment is getting more severe
Online harassment, a crime that involves using the internet to harass, bully, maliciously embarrass, or threaten an individual, is a serious problem in America. According to the Pew Research Center, about 4 in 10 U.S. adults have been harassed online.

While online harassment from strangers is generally less damaging than bullying or harassment from coworkers, it can nevertheless have a profound negative influence on how employees feel about their jobs and employers. Some of the negative organizational effects that can stem from online harassment include more distraction, internal conflict and lower group trust, among other things.

Even though perpetrators are anonymous and generally distant from their victims, online harassment can be uniquely damaging for individuals due to its scale and often public setting. For public-facing employees, minor conflicts can play out over months, attracting larger audiences and creating endless distractions. Harassment that starts online can also escalate into real-world physical threats, including sexual harassment and stalking.

Online harassment is a workplace issue
While studies show that up to 21% of people experience online harassment in the workplace, many organizations are unfamiliar with the extent of the problem their employees face. Responding to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, employees described frequent incidences of subtle and not so subtle workplace harassment with statements such as “A slight mistake in a message was twisted and re-sent out to my organization” and “Someone made a public post on Facebook criticizing my job performance.”

Read more: Everyday tech — even printers — needs cybersecurity protection

Due in part to the growth of remote employment that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, online workplace harassment has become a regrettably commonplace part of many employees’ daily lives. By blurring professional and personal lives and merging workplaces with the home, remote work may exacerbate online harassment even further. Early anecdotal evidence from the financial services industry suggests that offensive and hostile language linked to online harassment and bullying is on the rise among WFH employees.

Online harassment tends to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable segment of a company’s workforce. Employees who are younger, female, identify as LGBTQ, and come from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are especially likely to experience harassment on the internet.

Recently, for example, there has been an uptick in complaints from female workers. Research from the U.K. charity Rights of Women, which surveyed hundreds of women in late 2020, found that more than 4 in 10 participants were subjected to online harassment by their coworkers, with 7 in 10 participants saying that their employers aren’t doing enough to protect them.
Whether employees are targeted online by strangers or coworkers, the effects of this largely underreported crime can, and often do, seep into professional lives.

Why leadership needs to prioritize online anti-harassment efforts
Whether employees are targeted online by strangers or coworkers, the effects of this largely underreported crime can, and often do, seep into professional lives.

Researchers at the nonprofit Pen America in 2017 looked at writers and journalists who have experienced cyber harassment. More than six in 10 respondents to the study reported an impact on their personal life and/or physical, psychological, and emotional health. Furthermore, over three in 10 respondents said online harassment affected their professional lives.

Read more: Remote workers: Greater flexibility, greater risk

While mental stress caused by online harassment has been shown to lead to decreased motivation and reduced job satisfaction (especially among female employees), there can be legal consequences for employers too. Courts are increasingly expecting employers to intervene when they learn of work-related harassment spilling into the online space, even if the attack was carried out off the job and on private equipment.

Progressive measures companies can take to prevent online harassment
With remote and hybrid working situations here to stay, employers need to prioritize online harassment mitigation as an operational goal.

Every organization should have a clear anti-harassment policy that covers both offline and online harassment. The policy should outline what constitutes online harassment, what employees are expected to do if they or someone they work with is harassed (including who to report the issue to internally), and the consequences of harassing a colleague. Often, victims of harassment don’t know what to do or who to turn to when they experience abusive behavior online. Having a clear policy in place can help them feel safer and in control.

Read more: Don’t let your employees jeopardize your trade secrets

Companies should share anti-harassment policies during employee onboarding, include them in employee handbooks, and post them on internal communication channels like Slack.

It’s vital that when an incident of online harassment is brought to a manager’s attention that they refer to the company’s anti-harassment policy and act accordingly, regardless of whether that means giving the perpetrator a written warning, talking with them, or terminating their employment. In some instances, the complainant may also require additional support.

Even though the vast majority of employees are now online (both in a personal and professional capacity), few know how to protect their digital privacy. Digital security and anti-harassment training can go a long way in protecting both workers and employers.

Whether they overshare on social media or reuse passwords, too many individuals expose their personal information online without thinking of the consequences. Not only can this carelessness lead to online harassment, including doxxing and cyberstalking, but it can also leave businesses vulnerable to cyber attacks through social engineering campaigns.

Giving employees regular training on how to stay safe online, including using two-factor authentication and staying private on social media, can go a long way towards protecting a workforce against all types of online threats.

Workplace harassment training is equally as important. Regardless of whether it comes in the form of short videos, training exercises, or live talks, harassment training will help build staff awareness of inappropriate behavior, improve communication, and foster a company culture that is respectful and productive.

However, for training to be effective, it needs to be relevant and carried out regularly. Additionally, it’s important that senior leaders make time for harassment training, too. Otherwise, their employees are unlikely to take harassment and online abuse seriously either. When it comes to sexual harassment training, managers and rank and file employees need to be told different things (i.e., employees need to understand what is considered professional behavior and what to do if they are sexually harassed, whereas managers need to know how to handle complaints and end disrespectful conduct).

Lastly, employers should consider proactive cybersecurity services. The widespread availability of employee personal information online makes it easy for malicious actors to threaten them. With more than 230 data brokers selling information on 99% of all adult Americans, finding out someone’s email address, phone number, and other personal details, like their marital status and interests, is all too simple. In the wrong hands, this sensitive information can cause untold damage — both to employees and the organization they work for.

We recommend that employers encourage all staff to self-audit themselves on search engines as part of digital security training. However, even if individuals are committed to removing their information from the web, data brokers periodically relist people’s profiles, even after being asked to remove them.

A better solution is for organizations to enlist the help of professionals. Monthly services like DeleteMe can automatically opt employees out of data brokers, thus saving them time and protecting them from online abuse.

Even before the pandemic, we were already seeing an increase in the severity of online harassment. However, with the rise in remote working likely to make online harassment even worse, it’s critical that businesses take steps to keep their employees safe — from other workers and strangers alike. Implementing anti-harassment policies, offering digital security and anti-harassment employee training, and providing access to proactive cyber services is a good place to start.

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