Virtual Harassment: It’s Not Just for Middle School Anymore

Over the years we’ve seen a montage of films, TV shows, and books depicting the fallout of virtual harassment, especially amongst students. Kids and young adults are online now more than ever before, increasing the risk for online bullying and harassment. But it’s not students that we’re here to discuss... It’s us, the now five generations that make up the modern workplace.

Prior to our current health crisis a significant number of companies had remote employees, frequently using collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to streamline communication and enhance productivity. But for many of us, we are just now identifying and implementing those tools, sometimes with little guidance as to how they should be used. It's shifting not only the means but the ways in which we communicate.

So what’s the problem?

We live in a time when our work and social lives are increasingly intertwined, especially when we’re working from home and our cat strolls through our Zoom meeting. It can create a false sense of intimacy that can then translate to hazy boundaries online. With both the push and need to go virtual now, companies have never been more at risk for virtual harassment claims.

What is virtual harassment?

Virtual harassment falls into 2 main categories

  1. When the target receives unwelcome materials (e.g. digital messages, texts, emails, photos, etc.)
  2. When unwelcome messages or materials are posted about the target. With sexual harassment in particular, it’s often content about the target’s sexuality (real or perceived), sexual activities, and/or using sexual or gender-based derogatory terms to describe the target.

Who experiences it?

It could be easy to assume that tech-based harassment happens primarily among the younger generations. Research shows, however, that it exists across the age spectrum. Roughly 4 in 10 Americans report that they have personally experienced online harassment with the breakdown looking somewhat like this:

  • 67% of 18-29 year olds have been a target of harassment
  • 49% of 30-49 year olds have personally experienced online harassment
  • 22% of adults ages 50+ have experienced online harassment

What are the effects?

The effects of virtual harassment can be severe. On a personal level, harassment can cause anxiety, depression, increased stress, eating and sleeping disturbances, loss of motivation, and difficulty concentrating, among others. Company-wide, it affects productivity, cohesion, and ultimately profit margins. It’s not good for employees and it’s not good for business.

But what do we do about it?

If no one is immune to virtual harassment and its effects can be severe, what do we do about it?  As leaders in this field, we can begin with a few concrete steps:

  1. Revisit our current harassment policies and make sure they cover virtual harassment.
  2. Communicate our expectations for how employees should behave when using digital mediums such as collaboration tools and social media.
  3. Consistently respond when someone oversteps boundaries so employees know we take these matters seriously.

Virtual harassment isn’t just for middle school anymore.  It’s in our workplaces, probably now more than ever.  We need to make sure we’re investing time and energy into addressing it because everyone deserves to work on a team where they feel safe and respected.


Joell Beagle

Joell Beagle

Joell was a key member of the SAFE Institute training team until 2020, when she transitioned into a new role serving families at Dell Children's Hospital.