10 October 2009|
Digital dogging is new tool for office sexual harrassers
Digital technology has enabled workers to be more productive, allowed them to communicate around the world instantaneously and generally redefined almost every job description on Earth.
But it’s also given cubicle creeps and departmental degenerates new ways to sexually harass co-workers and underlings.
While texting, e-mails and comments on social media sites will never replace the grand tradition of bosses directly pressuring subordinates for sex, lawyers and consultants say digital communication has opened up a new front in the war against workplace harassment.
“It’s become the modern-day tool for harassing people,” says Timothy Dimoff, president and founder of SACS Consulting and Investigative Services, which has investigated many such cases. “They used to write notes on the bathroom wall. Now the computer is the bathroom wall.”
As a result, employment lawyers report a rise in cases involving digital harassment, from inappropriate texts to objectionable posts on social media pages.
“Clients are dealing with it every day,” says Jay Zweig, an employment law partner at Bryan Cave LLP.
So did Alison Minton, when she was working as a general manager of a private club in Midtown. Two higher-ups at the club made her a digital target, one sending propositions, the other sexist jokes. It wasn’t the only way they created an intimidating work environment, but it was one of the arrows in their individual quivers, according to Minton.
“Most of the back and forth was by e-mail,” says Minton, who is suing. “They just get bolder and bolder until your job is on the line.”
The propositioner — decades older than Minton — went after her even though he was married, had kids and knew Minton had a boyfriend, she says. And while Minton enjoyed their professional relationship, she didn’t enjoy reading his contributions to her inbox and having to send replies to fend him off.
“It was a very fine line I had to walk,” she adds. “I still had to flatter while I rejected.”
The behavior crescendoed to a final meeting where the board member dropped his pants, and Minton, who now runs a hospitality consulting firm, quit.
Experts — and Minton — say digital communications embolden harassers because they don’t have to face an actual human being.
“People put a lot more on that screen than they would verbally,” says Dimoff. “There’s no one standing around reacting to it.”
Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist who testifies as an expert witness in sexual harassment and other cases, agrees, calling it “one of the most prominent ways to test the waters” for harrassers. “Sometimes the harasser is afraid to be more overt for fear of being rejected. He may sometimes use the Internet, technology, e-mail, texting to see how receptive this person is going to be,” she says.
The irony, notes Lieberman, is while this behavior may protect harassers emotionally, it usually leaves them in legal trouble because e-mails, IMs and posted comments are a tangible record of their harassment. While harassers have gotten wise to e-mails leaving “paper” trails of abuse, they’re less careful about other forms of digital communication.
“I see less intimidating, harassing e-mail than I saw 10 years ago,” says Mara Levin, a defense attorney in employment cases at Herrick, Feinstein LLP in Manhattan. “However, employees aren’t quite as savvy about text messages and IMing.”
But those normally pointless posts on the quotidian details of life are just as traceable as e-mail. Levin recalls a case where a male boss was upset that a consensual relationship with a female subordinate went belly up. He started sending her text messages like “I will no longer tolerate your lateness if you are not sleeping with me,” Levin says, adding that other messages were racier.
In the end, it was the IMs that busted him.
“The IMs and texts of today are what secret tape recordings were 15 years ago,” Levin says.
While that was a fairly standard case of inappropriate sexual pressure, other cases are more subtle, with the perpetrators unaware they’re doing anything wrong.
“Part of [the problem] is the blurring of what’s personal and what’s business,” says Zweig.
He recalls a case where a male employee was reprimanded for showing nude photos of his girlfriend she’d sent to his private e-mail and personal cellphone. The employee flashed the goodies to a work buddy, but another co-worker saw the pictures and complained.
The boyfriend was nonplussed. After all, he reasoned, it was his phone and his e-mail account.
“Well, it’s not private when you’re at the workplace,” says Zweig. Cellphones are no exception.
And Zweig notes that IM culture — where it’s considered protocol to respond to all text messages — can give harassers the wrong signal. At a call center that prides itself on its “fun” culture and allowed dating between co-workers, a male employee was nearly fired for hounding a female associate for a date via text messages. Initially, the woman responded with a “THX” to his compliments and didn’t say no with sufficient vigor to his entreaties; Zweig says she was being polite.
He kept at it. She stopped responding. He still kept at it. She complained to management.
“There were repeated, unrelenting requests for dates. If you do it once or twice, it would be okay, but it went on,” Zweig says.
Social media such as MySpace and Facebook are posing harassment problems for companies as well, says Shanti Atkins, the president and CEO of ELP, an online ethics and compliance training firm.
One company she worked with had an employee who chronicled his dates on his MySpace page — including dates he had had with co-workers. Though he never said anything lascivious, he did comment on his dates’ lack of personality, their flawed looks — and their alleged promiscuity.
“It made some of the women very upset,” says Atkins. “Think of how complicated this is for an employer to handle.”
But Zweig says questionable incidents of digital sexual harassment aren’t terribly complicated for many companies.“It’s generally an easy decision to terminate the employee,” he says.
Minus the leer, digital deluge can still drown
DIGITAL communication from the boss doesn’t have to be sexual to be harassing. Take the experience of “Jane,” a publicist in Manhattan who asked not to be named. At an old job working from home for the communications department of a telecom monolith, she regularly received 20 to 25 IMs and e-mails per hour from her two superiors, she says.
“They would use it as a mechanism to harass me all day long,” she says. “It was the worst form of harassment I’ve ever dealt with.”
She notes that even the lousiest boss wouldn’t run to your desk every three minutes to see what you’re doing, but instant messaging obviates that problem. And her bosses expected instant responses — even if she was in the middle of doing her actual duties.
“Because it was digital, it was so much worse,” says Jane — who lasted 10 months before quitting.
It pays to be careful when you IM or e-mail a co-worker, for an innocent missive can easily be misconstrued, experts say.
“There’s huge room to be misinterpreted,” says attorney Jay Zweig.
That’s because in face- to-face communication, people can see nonverbal cues that clue them in to the intended meaning. In digital communication, those cues aren’t there.
So if someone tells you, “You look nice,” smiles and moves on, it’s usually no big deal. But sending “You look nice” in an IM can seem sinister, “especially if they don’t know you well or if you’re in a higher position in the company,” says Zweig.
So your default IM mode should be caution. If anything could potentially be taken the wrong way, don’t send it.
Zweig says it’s especially important to tread lightly at a time when some companies are itching for a reason to shed extra workers.
“Companies are being much more proactive in investigating and terminating people who engage in this behavior,” he says.
Source Article at New York Post