US law requires employers to create a workplace free from discrimination and harassment. But what happens when staff members confront a torrent of hate and abuse online? Given that over 44 percent of Americans say they’ve experienced online harassment, chances are employers will have people on staff who have been affected.
For individuals with publicly oriented jobs, such as journalists and policy-makers, online abuse may well be part of day-to-day working life.
Although anyone can be subjected to online abuse, women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community are disproportionately targeted for their identities and experience more severe forms of harassment. As more and more organizations proclaim their commitment to providing equitable and inclusive work environments, they can no longer afford to ignore the very real consequences of online abuse.
When employees are attacked online in a way that intersects with their professional life, organizations have a responsibility to take the abuse seriously and help address it. Some employers may feel that they don’t know where to start, but there are many steps you can take to support your teams in preparing for, responding to and mitigating the damage of online abuse. Here are some actions to get started:
Acknowledge the harm
To create an environment where employees feel safe and supported enough to come forward when they are being abused online, leadership needs to let workers know that it takes the issue seriously and expect managers and colleagues to do the same. Targets often suffer in isolation, partly because there’s still a great deal of stigma and shame associated with harassment. A commitment to supporting staff members who are being abused online can be formalized by amending existing policies and protocols around sexual harassment and social media use, communicated via all-staff emails and meetings and reinforced by the ways in which managers and human resources react to individual cases.
Assess the scope
Survey staff members to figure out the degree to which they are facing and how they are navigating online abuse. The survey can be informal and anonymous. It should examine how often employees are experiencing abuse and on which platforms; what kinds of tactics they’re being subjected to; the emotional, psychological and professional toll; and how the institution can offer support.
Create protocols and offer training
When employees are being harassed online, they often have no idea what to do. Arm them with the knowledge that there are concrete steps they can take to proactively protect themselves from and respond to abuse. Having clear protocols can make workers feel safer and more empowered. To ensure staff members are actually aware of these initiatives, employers can fold policies and protocols into onboarding and employee handbooks, post information on intranets and Slack channels, and encourage managers, HR, information technology and social media staff to reinforce them. Companies should also offer training on how employees can better protect the digital tools they use, how to report online abuse internally, ways to combat hate speech and how to conform to corporate social media policies.
Develop an internal reporting system
As a part of your online abuse protocol, create a space where staff members can safely and privately report it. Put together a small task force to clarify what kinds of abuse employees can report, create a reporting mechanism (for example, a designated email account or Slack channel), monitor it and ensure prompt follow-up.
Offer concrete resources and services
These can include cybersecurity services that protect against hacking, impersonation, doxing and identity theft (including password managers, such as Password or LastPass); data scrubbers, such as DeleteMe or PrivacyDuck; mental health care or counseling; and legal counseling.
If your organization expects employees to express themselves via blogs, articles or organizational social media channel you can protect them from harassment by creating and enforcing guidelines for acceptable content. While fostering open online debate is important, it is also fair to define what you consider to be abusive and decide how problematic content will be dealt with. News outlets like The Wall Street Journal have started creating clear policies for moderating article comments. Machine learning can also help human content moderators enforce policies.
Encourage peer support networks
Online abuse is intended to be profoundly isolating, which is why giving your staff a safe space to vent, share experiences and exchange strategies is vitally important. Encourage employees to band together and create a peer support group. Just make sure they have adequate time and access to leadership to apply their experiences to help improve policies, protocols and resources.
If you are a manager, you have an especially important role to play in supporting employees enduring cyber harassment. In particular, you can:
- Reach out and listen. Proactively reach out to staff members targeted by online abuse, check in and listen closely to their needs. Keep in mind that some individuals may not feel comfortable calling attention to their situation for fear of retaliation or increased scrutiny, so be discreet. Such conversations are best held privately, although the affected employee should feel empowered to invite a trusted colleague or an HR representative.
- Assess the threat. Work closely with targeted staff members to gauge threats to physical safety (for themselves, their family and colleagues); in some cases it may be necessary to engage law enforcement or professional security experts.
- Document and delegate. Monitoring and documenting online offenses can be instrumental for escalating abuse to tech companies and law enforcement and pursuing legal action. But taking these steps can also be exhausting and retraumatizing for the target. Managers can offer temporary respite by asking a close colleague of the targeted individual or the social media team to monitor, report or document abuse.
- Escalate. Most digital platforms have mechanisms to report online abuse. But sometimes these mechanisms fail. As an individual, it can be difficult to get a platform’s attention. Luckily, organizations often have direct contacts at tech companies. If staff members have reported abuse that clearly violates terms of service, but they are unable to get it removed, escalating the issue directly to tech company contacts can make all the difference.
The racial justice movement is putting much-needed pressure on organizations to redouble their commitment to creating more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces. Online abuse is a major stumbling block to these efforts. If an organization is serious about supporting its workers, it should have their backs in the face of online attacks.
Viktorya Vilk is program director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America.