It's not 'just one'

Incidents of virtual workplace harassment are rising, and employers are playing catch-up


April 1, 2014


Dr. Dianne Ford says incidents of virtual
workplace harassment are increasing.

It’s a scene that’s occurring more and more frequently.

Employees log in to work email for a quick look after dinner, or remember an email that needs a response but had been forgotten until out running errands. While checking work email, more employees are instead discovering messages from co-workers and supervisors that are belittling, condescending, or perhaps even threatening.

This is known as virtual workplace harassment and it can occur anywhere at any time.

Dr. Dianne Ford, a researcher at the Faculty of Business Administration who specializes in management information systems and organizational behaviour, says employees are taking work home more than ever before, and that means the opportunities for workplace harassment are not only becoming more common, but more complicated.

“We all have our smart phones, like Blackberries and iPhones, which we use to check our work email. Some companies even give their employees home computers so they can check work email at home,” she says. “There’s a general expectation now to reply to work, even during personal hours. So what used to be confined to the building and work hours has now broadened into personal lives.”

Dr. Ford started looking into virtual workplace harassment after experiencing it herself while employed at a university in Ontario. One anonymous, sexually harassing email led to a four-and-a-half year human rights battle as Dr. Ford fought her employer for failing to uphold human rights legislation. While the email came from a former student, not her employer, testimony offered during the hearing supported Dr. Ford’s position that the university didn’t have systems in place that could have prevented the incident from happening, nor did it provide appropriate employee care once it had taken place. Dr. Ford won the case in 2010.

The stress associated with the virtual sexual harassment, which occurred when Dr. Ford was seven months pregnant, likely led to the premature birth of her son and caused her to take maternity leave early.

She didn’t return to work at the university in Ontario, instead joining Memorial University following maternity leave, but she found it harder than expected to return to work in spite of the clean slate.

“It was interesting because I started experiencing problems coming back into work, and I thought either I can be a victim to this and end a career early, or I can try to find a way to make a silver lining.”

Dr. Ford chose the silver lining and started a new line of research in 2009. The resulting study, published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2013, focused on understanding how virtual workplace harassment might be different from traditional harassment for employees across North America.

She found that 37 per cent of participants in the study had experienced a form of traditional face-to-face harassment at least once in the past year. When asked about virtual harassment, however, that number jumped to 58 per cent with many of the respondents saying they had experienced both traditional and virtual forms.

There wasn’t as great a difference when looking at daily incidents: seven per cent had experienced daily traditional harassment and nine per cent had experienced daily virtual harassment.

“It’s not that huge of a difference for the extreme cases but the one-offs are happening a lot more,” Dr. Ford says.

Traditional forms of workplace harassment are known to cause psychological strain for employee such as mood swings, depression, absenteeism, lack of sleep, increased anger and hostility, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fear of future harassment.

Dr. Ford’s research found that the effects of virtual workplace harassment are the same as traditional forms with one exception: while the psychological and health strain are solely from stress, with virtual harassment there appears to also be a direct relationship between receiving harassing emails or texts and strain. Given that virtual harassment is occurring more frequently, it follows that more employees are experiencing these types of strains on their psychological health at a greater rate.

Based on her personal experience and expertise in management information systems, Dr. Ford looked at three characteristics of virtual harassment that she suspected may impact psychological health: media richness, anonymity and location.

Media richness refers to the cues that are used in communication to convey intent. In person, for example, facial expressions, tone of voice and body language all provide clues that help a person understand whether someone is joking or serious. In virtual communications, it’s more difficult to understand the intent of a communication but there are still some clues that help such as the use of emoticons or caps lock.

Dr. Ford’s study showed that the richer a communication is – that is, the clearer the intent – the more fear of future harassment occurs, likely because it may be perceived as more severe.

Anonymity has an important impact on the level of fear that a person experiences when they are the target of virtual harassment.

“The inability to identify a perpetrator affects human rights processes but, from a target’s perspective, it also has implications for your sense of vulnerability. Who do you need to be on guard around? From whom do you need to protect yourself?” she says. “The anonymity creates a generalized fear.”

However, there was an unexpected benefit of anonymity in that receiving an anonymous form of virtual harassment increases a person’s fear of future harassment but it also lessens the likelihood that targets would experience psychological strain from that fear. In short, the anonymity of some virtual communications acts as a buffer from symptoms such as anger and depression that result from fear of future harassment.

Where one receives the harassing communication is also important. Home is usually considered a safe place, for example, but if you receive a harassing email in your home, “then there’s the violation of that safety expectation but also there isn’t the usual safe cocoon for getting away from it.”

One mitigating factor is when employees are required by their employers to check their email outside of work hours.

“One of the possible arguments is that it removes the voluntariness,” says Dr. Ford. “So if I don’t have to check my email and I do on my own personal whim, and I get aggressed against at home, then it’s my own fault.

“But if I have to check my email at home because my boss has told me that I have to or because I believe it is expected, then I check my email at home not because I wanted to but because I had to. This removes the culpability of that experience away from me and puts it onto the organization. This might be why it helps protect the individual from the negative effects. What we don’t know is if it might move the blame to the organization.”

The potential shifting of blame to the organization is just one of the effects that employers need to start considering in today’s work environments.

“Organizations really need to be able to figure out how to help mitigate these negative effects [of virtual harassment on employees],” says Dr. Ford.

Being clear about the expectations of checking work email outside of work hours may be one way to do that. Other ways are to make sure that computers within an organization’s control can’t be used anonymously, either through secure logins or surveillance systems.

Policies about acceptable computer usage also need to be clear and implemented as part of the workplace culture. More importantly, those policies should be directly linked to harassment and discriminations policies rather than enacted independently by separate departments such as information technology and human resources.

Organizations must also take complaints about virtual harassment seriously, even for just one email or instant message, and offer appropriate employee assistance programs including counselling services to affected individuals.

“It is genuinely embarrassing to receive something that’s harassing. If anyone else sees the message then it’s really embarrassing because it’s not professional, or it creates the stigma of victimization. So taking away the stigma for reporting these things would assist employees, as would removing that ideology of ‘just one,’” says Dr. Ford.

“We all use the phrase ‘just one email’ but in reality, even a single incident, if it’s severe enough, violates human rights. That one email can have bigger impact than just one incredibly nasty interaction, and I’m now trying to figure out why.”

Dr. Ford is currently undertaking research that looks at a broader range of virtual media, including social media, and also explores ways in which organizations can help mitigate the negative effects on employees of virtual workplace harassment.

Susan White-MacPherson