Why employers have a duty to prevent online co-worker harassment

On Behalf of | Feb 20, 2024 | Employee Rights |

People often assume that what they do on their own time outside of work is none of their employer’s business. That used to be largely the case.

However, now that most people have some kind of social media or other online presence, their behavior outside of work can become known – and damaging to their employer’s reputation. For example, there have been cases of people losing their jobs when a video of them harassing or threatening someone went viral.

What if the target is a colleague?

We all know that social media sites can be particularly toxic places. People often feel free to say ugly or even threatening things to people they don’t know because they can be largely anonymous. But what if a co-worker is harassing you on social media? Is that something you can report to your employer?

In fact, you can. U.S. courts have increasingly ruled that social media is an “extension of the workplace.” Employers can be held liable when an employee harasses a colleague, a customer or anyone else they know through work, even if they’re doing it from home outside of work hours. This holds true for social media posts, texts and other forms of communication.

The price for harassment can be high for an employer

Sexual harassment is one of the more common types of communication that employers can find themselves being held responsible for. In one case, a large electronics retailer was ordered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to pay over $2 million after a store manager sexually harassed a young employee via text. In another case, an employer had to pay $1.6 million after employees harassed a disabled co-worker on that person’s blog.

Employers are most likely to be held liable when harassment is sexual in nature or involves a person’s protected characteristics like race, religion or sexual orientation. Certainly, that’s true for threats as well. Threats can also lead to criminal consequences for the perpetrator.

This harassment can follow people into work

If you’re being harassed or threatened by a co-worker or manager via social media, personal text or any other form of communication, it can certainly create a hostile work environment. That’s true no matter how professionally that colleague may behave in the workplace.

You can and should report this to your employer and expect them to take action. If that doesn’t happen, it may be necessary to explore your legal options to help protect your safety and well-being.

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