Does Cyber-Stalking by Coworkers Count as Sexual Harassment?

Depressed woman working with computer at night

When sexual harassment goes online, it can be hard to tell where the line is between at work and not. Cyber-stalking by coworkers can make the idea of going to work and facing your harassers seem impossibly difficult. Find out whether cyber-stalking by coworkers counts as sexual harassment and what you can do about it.

In this blog post, I will discuss how new ways to use technology have created new forms of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. I will review Title VII’s protections against gender discrimination and sexual harassment and discuss when cyber-stalking by coworkers may or may not covered by the statute.

Employment Communications Go Online, Create Potential for Cyber-Stalking

In the modern era of technology, it seems like there is a new way to connect every day. Employers, supervisors, and coworkers use social media, forums, and company message apps to stay connected and get work done. But when coworkers become sexually aggressive, all those ways to stay connected become channels for sexual harassment.

Most states have laws against harassing a person through electronic means. In New York, there are criminal laws against stalking that protect people against threats and intimidation that put them in fear for their safety. In New York, criminal stalking could include:

  • Tailing or watching the person
  • Trespassing at the person’s home or workplace
  • Stealing the person’s mail
  • Damaging the person’s property
  • Unwanted contact or communications, including through family, neighbors, or coworkers
  • Using tracking devices, video cameras, or GPS
  • Monitoring a person’s computer use and Internet history

When the methods harassers use are electronic, stalking becomes cyberstalking. Some of the most common forms of cyberstalking include:

  • Texting explicit imagery (sexting)
  • Sending unwanted emails or direct messages
  • Posting of intimate details on public (or company-wide) forums
  • Unrelenting commenting or communicating through social media.

Criminal stalking behavior doesn’t have to be sexual in nature, but many stalking victims feel targeted because of their gender or sexuality or because the person harassing them is seeking an unwanted romantic relationship. When that behavior occurs between coworkers it can raise the question of whether that behavior is also illegal sexual harassment.

Does Cyber-Stalking by Coworkers Count as Sexual Harassment?

Most employees know that federal law protects them from sexual harassment at work. Title VII requires your employer to take reasonable steps to respond to claims of sexual harassment or gender discrimination against supervisors, managers, coworkers, and even customers in some cases. When the misconduct happens face-to-face in the office, that’s one thing. But what about online? Does your employer need to respond to cyber-stalking by coworkers?

Whether Title VII will apply to cyber-stalking depends in part on who is doing the wrongful behavior. If your manager, supervisor, or boss is the one targeting you online, that could be considered sexual harassment even if it is sent outside of work hours, or through private channels like your social media accounts. However, if you are targeted for cyber-stalking by coworkers, the issue of Title VII gets a little more difficult. The question then becomes whether there is enough connection between the conduct and the workplace.

Remember that Title VII protects employees against sexual harassment or gender discrimination that is so severe or frequent that it creates a hostile work environment. It can sometimes be hard to say who is sending harassing messages online. Many social media platforms and forums are anonymous. Just suspecting that a fellow employee is involved is not enough.

In general, the closer the connection between work and the cyber-stalking, the more likely it will count as sexual harassment. If a harassing message appeared on a company server or message board, can be traced back to a coworker, or came from work computer, there are cases that say your employer may have a duty to respond to that behavior.

What to Do if a Coworker Sexually Harasses You Online

If you believe you are the victim of cyber-stalking by coworkers, you will most likely need to take a two-step approach to stopping the behavior. Most employers don’t have the technology to trace back anonymous messages and determine who sent them. If you aren’t sure, or if the behavior is severe enough to cross the line into criminal cyber-stalking, you may need to go to the police first. In other cases, though, a timely complaint to HR or your supervisor may be enough to stop cyber-stalking before it gets serious enough to count as criminal behavior.

One of the most important things to do if a coworker sexually harasses you online is to preserve the evidence. On many platforms, a user can edit or delete their posts after they are published. If your coworkers suspect that you have reported them, they may try to hide the evidence by deleting their posts. That’s why, whether you just end up showing it to your boss, or have to admit it into evidence at trial, it’s important to have printouts or screen captures of the offensive online behavior.

At Eisenberg & Baum, our New York City-based sexual harassment attorneys know how hard it can be to deal with online sexual harassment and cyber-stalking. We will help you identify your options, negotiate with your employer, and ensure that your rights are protected at work and in court. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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