Digital Discomfort Dynamics: The Distinct Trauma of Online Sexual Harassment
Many people grew up in an age where at least during the workday, they were able to physically avoid annoying, rude, or harassing co-workers or bosses.
This was especially true in large workplaces, which provided opportunities to avoid toxic colleagues in the conference room, the boardroom, or the break room.
Today, avoiding harassing employees is not an option, because communication also takes place online.
Sure you can turn off your device after work.
But not only would you worry about missing an important message, but you would feel anxious that inappropriate messages would just be there waiting when you turn it back on.
Many victims have shared they would rather just read the inappropriate messages as they came in to get it over with.
But that's not an acceptable way to live — especially off the clock. Is there a solution?
Why Online Sexual Harassment is Different
Jennifer A. Scarduzio et al. ( in 2020) examined the growing problem of coworker online sexual harassment. They adopt a working definition of sexual harassment per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC 2019) as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."
They note that employees subjected to online harassment by coworkers experience a different type of discomfort than occurs in person. They recognize that online "tools" make it easier for perpetrators to harass victims, and create an environment that's overwhelming for survivors.
Scarduzio et al. (ibid.) recognize that online harassment blurs work-life boundaries, and allows perpetrators to engage in inappropriate behavior without surveillance.
Consequently, victims are faced with a unique decision regarding reporting, which is complicated by the fact that many organizations do not have policies that specifically cover conduct outside of the workplace, or online.
Victim Decisions to Report Online Harassment
Scarduzio et al. note that prior research found that victims cope with online sexual harassment by normalizing, ignoring, downplaying, or blaming themselves for the harassment.
In their own research studying employees who were sexually harassed on Facebook, they found some additional dynamics that impacted the decision to report the conduct.
One-third of their participants reported the harassment, explaining their motivation as including feeling unsafe, afraid, or uncomfortable, and that the harassment was affecting their work performance.
They were also motivated by wanting to stop the behavior and punish the harasser.
Scarduzio et al. (supra) note that the most common reason victims reported was emotional discomfort. Many of the subjects described feelings of awkwardness and personal discomfort that persisted both in and out of the workplace.
They also reported how their discomfort impacted the work environment, leading to negative consequences such as difficult interactions with coworkers and supervisors, and decreased productivity.
Of the two-thirds of their study participants who chose not to report online sexual harassment by a coworker, Scarduzio et al. (supra) note that explanations included wanting to handle the situation themselves, feeling uncomfortable, thinking the harassment was not worth addressing, worrying that reporting it would make it worse, or worrying about backlash by coworkers or employers.
The fact that the harassment was online instead of in person also played a role, causing victims to view it as a private issue that they should handle outside of the workplace.
Social Support Crucial to Facilitating Disclosure
Scarduzio et al. found that in the balance, the personal distress of harassment can outweigh the desire to keep sensitive information private.
Additionally, they found that the decision to report is impacted by anticipated social support, with participants deciding to share information with those whom they perceived would render appropriate support.
Accepting that sexual harassment is a serious social problem, whether it occurs on or offline, can facilitate a supportive environment where survivors will feel comfortable revealing the behavior, so it can be properly addressed.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance and style. Her over 4,500 media appearances include these major news outlets: CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN, FOX Business Network and weekly appearances on Newsmax. She is author of ''Red Flags'' (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of The New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House, revision). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, participates as a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and plays the electric violin professionally with a rock band. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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