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Is your employer responsible for a co-worker’s online harassment?

Many people don’t realize that employers’ responsibility for preventing workplace harassment and discrimination actually extends beyond the workplace. With people being increasingly accessible online, for example, it’s not enough to protect employees from this behavior while they’re at work or a work-related event regardless of where or when it occurs.

Courts have determined that social media is an “extension of the workplace.” Further, last fall, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) proposed new guidance to address “how social media postings and other online content can contribute to a hostile work environment” even if an employee doesn’t engage in discriminatory or other inappropriate behavior toward a co-worker at work.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that if you get into a heated political argument with a co-worker online and they say something unkind to you, your employer is required to take action. However, if their words are aimed at a protected characteristic like race, sexual orientation or religion, your employer could potentially be liable if they fail to do anything about it after you report it to them. The same is true if a co-worker sexually harasses you.

These cases can cost employers a lot

In one case, an employer was required to pay $1.6 million after an employee reported that co-workers were harassing them about their disability online and the employer failed to take any action against them.

If you’re facing discriminatory harassment by a co-worker, manager or even a subordinate on social media or other online forum or via text or email, it’s crucial to notify your human resources department, if you have one, or the appropriate manager (which may be someone other than your direct manager, if they’re the problem). Print out all of the messages, making sure the harasser’s identity is clear, before you block them. 

Some employers may not understand that this is their responsibility, so it’s important that you have the information you need to assert your rights. If your employer won’t deal with the problem, you may need to seek legal guidance to determine your options for protecting your rights.