Technology is fuelling a new wave of workplace sexual harassment, as social media provides intimate details of workers’ personal lives and systems deployed by some companies allow would-be stalkers to track their colleagues’ location in real time.
The role of new technologies in enabling workplace sexual harassment emerged in readers’ responses to a Financial Times’ investigation into inappropriate sexual behaviours in professional relationships. Many readers argued that the overall environment had improved in recent years, as companies took their responsibilities more seriously and individuals’ attitudes changed.
But some highlighted a new threat.
Professional social networks such as Facebook’s Workplace and instant messaging service Slack have been embraced by big global companies who want to promote idea sharing and networking across time zones. Companies of all sizes have adopted applications including shared Outlook calendars in the name of efficiency.
“It’s great to connect people across the world to form cross-border teams and share expertise,” one financial services worker wrote to the FT. “But, if some guy at the company is persistently trying to ask you out on a date, or pressuring you into sex, it means he has loads of tools to stalk you online, get tonnes of information about you, and find your whereabouts, which is really scary.
“And because all these systems are company mandatory, you can’t block the guy, switch messenger off, or hide your profile from him. At least if you’re harassed on Twitter or Facebook, you can block people or close your account,” the reader wrote.
A spokeswoman for Workplace — which keeps user accounts separate from personal Facebook pages — says that individuals cannot block colleagues but that companies administer their own portals and have the option of blocking or deactivating specific users.
Unlike some other platforms, Workplace asks users to sign up to an “acceptable use policy” which prohibits creating content that is “harmful” or “deceptive or defamatory”. The policy does not explicitly reference sexual harassment. The spokeswoman declined to say how or whether the policy is enforced.
Gmail’s corporate email function allows users to block senders, but calendars cannot be hidden from company administrators. “Protecting employees against workplace harassment should ultimately rest in the hands of the company’s management, including HR,” a spokesperson for Google says. “That said, technology can play its part in the process” of protecting employees.
Microsoft sets the default calendar settings on its Office software to “private” so individuals cannot see what their coworkers are doing. Microsoft says clients had not asked for additional controls or permissions. Slack, which does not have a blocking function on its platform, declined to comment.
The head of HR for a FTSE 250 company says his firm used Outlook for scheduling as well as several professional networking apps, and had “no issues arising to date in respect of any of these platforms”.
“The benefits they bring in terms of collaboration are significant and underpin both productivity and innovation,” he adds.
Another FT reader, also working in financial services, wrote that social media “makes creeps worse . . . like when it’s late at night and they try to direct message me on Instagram saying how hot I look or how they can’t sleep. At the same time, I’m connected on Instagram to plenty of coworkers who, you know, don’t send me weird messages and act like totally normal human beings.”
Monica Parker, founder of workplace behavioural consultancy Hatch Analytics, warns that workers should exercise caution. “Social networks do make us more likely to share aspects of our lives we might not share with colleagues, and those aspects can be used against us,” she says.
A woman working in Silicon Valley says she and her peers have employed a simple strategy: “Many of us have simply stopped putting up anything on Instagram, period.”
“One of my mentees, age 30, was so badly cyber stalked, I got her in touch with the local FBI field office in Chicago, which took her complaints quite seriously,” she adds.
Samantha Mangwana, a lawyer at Slater and Gordon, recalls social media being used against one of her clients who had made a complaint about sexual harassment.
The complaint “became widely known and that resulted in her being hounded on Facebook,” says Ms Mangwana. “It’s hard to express how difficult it is for someone when they’re faced for the first time with such vitriol from such a high number of people who previously they considered their friends . . . That feeling of isolation and being shunned by everyone and actually being hated, is intense.
“In one case I later acted in, my client had attempted to commit suicide in order to end it all,” she adds.
There is only one upside — if it can be called that — to high tech sexual harassment through social networks and messaging platforms. As Ms Parker puts it: “It gives a great paper trail of the abuse should a person choose to report it”.
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler
Open-plan offices a mixed blessing
Open-plan offices have proved a mixed blessing when it comes to sexual harassment, readers tell the Financial Times
The layout reduces the opportunity for closed-door encounters that historically provided the backdrop for unwanted advances, but at the same time the arrangement makes some workers feel like they are on display for predatory peers.
Several women told the FT that open-plan offices — and flexible working arrangements — had greatly improved their experiences at work. They wrote that they are no longer trapped in small offices with men who engage in inappropriate behaviours. Hot desking, which allows workers to chose where to sit each day, has improved things even further, by making it possible to avoid known offenders.
But others said the new arrangements had created new problems "When I walk to my desk, all the way across the trading floor, I regularly have coworkers catcall me. This is because it’s an open plan and because it's, for some reason, totally acceptable on Wall Street," says one finance worker.
Samantha Mangwana, a lawyer at Slater and Gordon, says she has had “clients where they have really struggled with the trauma of being in a workplace environment that is open plan or where they might encounter male colleagues responsible for harassment.”
LeAnne Fuller, an LA-based harassment and crisis management specialist, says an open-plan office “can lend itself to allowing conversations to be overheard that might offend employees and cause an environment that isn't comfortable”.
Several women say that when they were outnumbered by men in large open-plan offices, the situation felt more intimidating and the larger male group was more likely to have inappropriate conversations.
“It’s almost irresponsible to suggest a certain layout might ameliorate or exacerbate the problem, like this foolishness of cancelling holiday parties to 'reduce harassment opportunities’,” says Monica Parker, founder of workplace behavioural consultancy Hatch Analytics.
“It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, avoiding the actual hard work of systemic culture change by finding a quick fix that might reduce culpability of organisations and businesses because they can’t or won’t wrap their arms around the enormity of the problem.”
Get alerts on Workplace diversity & equality when a new story is published