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Textual Harassment at Work: Romance and Sexual Harassment on Social Media

2013 March 20

ResearchBlogging.orgTextual harassment, which is sexual harassment occurring via social media, is on the rise and potentially a nightmare for human resources professionals.  In traditional sexual harassment, human resource professionals can generally assume that the harassment they are concerned with takes place within the boundaries of the office.  However, just as social media blur the line between “work” and “not work”, textual harassment blurs the responsibilities of HR regarding sexual harassment.  If an employee makes a comment that is perceived as harassing via social media to another employee, is it the organization’s responsibility to act?

In an upcoming issue of Academy of Management Perspectives, Mainiero and Jones[1] explore the various research literatures related to textual harassment.  It is a complex problem with many grey areas and ambiguities, as  illustrated in this quote:

If a coworker admires an employee’s new dress while at work, that coworker can read tone and body language and politely say thanks.  However, a late night text message from a colleague’s personal account about a new dress takes on a much more lascivious tone, even if that is not the intention.

In their article, the authors focus on textual harassment within the context of workplace relationships, where matters become even more murky.  The authors explore the issues from three perspectives:

  1. Workplace surveys reveal that workplace romances are very common.  In one study, more than 33% employees reported finding love in the workplace, and 66% of those employees revealed their relationship to coworkers and/or bosses.  However, 6% of employees revealed that they had left a job due to such a romance.  The biggest challenge for HR in workplace romances is determining if the relationship is ethical (e.g. one employee should not be in a position of power over another, or be able to show favoritism in decision-making).  38% of employees reported that they believed coworkers to gain advantages due to relationships and 31% of employees were uncomfortable with this.  Social media is a relatively common way for such romances to take place, especially Millennials.
  2. Sexual harassment after a workplace romance is more common.  And social media makes HR’s responsibilities unclear when such relationship go bad.  Consider this vignette shared by the authors:

    Consider the following social media contemporary romance scenario: a woman meets a man at work in her same department. She texts him for a drink after work; he complies. They embark on a romance that lasts three months. He complains that she expects him to do her work for her. She complains that he is too clingy. They part ways, initially amicably, but he continues to text her at work during the day with sexting-related comments about her legs, how her clothing moves as she walks down the hallway, and other intimate details of their past relationship. But in business meetings he is all business and so is she. Outside the office, she blocks him from her Facebook page, yet he still has memorized her cell phone number and continues to bother her during the day and evening hours. He checks her whereabouts on Foursquare. She mentions to him that she does not want him to continue to IM her or follow her on Twitter; he refuses to comply with her request. At work, they are assigned a similar departmental project that requires frequent meetings. They retain a LinkedIn association as colleagues.

    At present, this remains a murky grey area, although several major textual harassment cases are pending.

  3. Sexual harassment policies are outdated given this new technology.  Social media, and its dramatic effect on interpersonal behavior at work, has triggered a sudden re-examination of sexual harassment policies.  Such policies are usually driven by state-mandated requirements, but these requirements are often themselves formed as a reaction to legal challenges and public opinion, which are not currently very stable.  Right now, there are no right answers.

The authors conclude from these perspectives that right now, corporations have a responsibility to say “harassment is harassment”, whether it is public or private, and whether it involves personal or corporate resources.  This is certainly the safest route.  However, the authors also recognize that there are threats to privacy inherent to this view.  They also note that workplace romances can be quite positive for everyone involved (the romantic partners and the organization), so prohibiting such relationships is not a reasonable solution.

They suggest implementation of the fabulously labeled love contract, an agreement asking employees entering into a romance to formally report that they are doing so voluntarily (this reminds me a bit of Futurama’s Form B: Notice of Romantic Entanglement, which is filed – where else – at the Central Bureaucracy).

Finally, they suggest that firms implement two types of policy: 1) a proactive policy including discussion of all of these issues in sexual harassment training and 2) a reactive policy explaining the precise procedures for resolving such situations when social media is involved.

While this certainly won’t solve all the problems introduced by new technologies, the authors provide a reasonable first step toward clarifying the role of HR in this brave, new world of social media and romance.

Footnotes:
  1. Mainiero, L., & Jones, K. (2013). Sexual Harassment Versus Workplace Romance: Social Media Spillover and Textual Harassment in the Workplace Academy of Management Perspectives DOI: 10.5465/amp.2012.0031 []
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