Can Social Media Stop Harassment?

A front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday focused on a new app popular among school-age kids these days called After School. The app, designed by its makers to let students anonymously post about sensitive topics they wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable discussing, has become a platform for bullying in some cases, with students using it to taunt their classmates about their appearance and mannerisms.

dv1080014The episode has led to more hand-wringing about the pernicious effect of social media in our lives. But social media can also be a force for good, particularly in the workplace. Earlier this week, speakers at a panel held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explained how the medium can help alert organizations to incidents of harassment and discrimination that might otherwise go unreported.

Anne Johnson, executive director of Generation Progress of the Center for American Progress, told the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace about the “It’s On Us” campaign, which incorporates the use of social media to raise awareness of and change behaviors toward sexual assault. It includes information on recognizing sexual assault, intervening in situations before it occurs and creating an environment where such assault is unacceptable. Although It’s On Us has been primarily focused on college campuses, it can also be used for preventing workplace harassment, Johnson said.

Jess Kutch, co-founder of Coworker.org, told the panel about how the petition platform has been used to call attention to workplace harassment that wasn’t treated adequately through the usual channels. If, for example, a number of people post about sexual harassment by one particular supervisor or about multiple incidents at a single location, she said, other employees who’ve experienced the same thing can see that they’re not alone and may be spurred to take action.

The EEOC’s panel also included testimony from groups representing the disabled, Muslims, people who are LGBT and older Americans, all of whom said workplace harassment continues to persist and — particularly in the case of Muslim and transgender employees — is an especially topical concern. Current events have exacerbated the harassment potential for Muslim employees, said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Employees who are transitioning face severe harassment, often by coworkers who may mock them in front of customers, said Tara Borelli of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Considering that many incidents of harassment go unreported for any number of reasons, maybe it’s a good idea for HR professionals to consider social media as a potential “early alert” for things that would otherwise slip right under their radar.