It’s almost 2016.
By now, who among us: the lawyers, the HR professionals, the owners (Hi there, Mark Cuban, thanks for reading again today), has yet to deal with an allegation of workplace harassment involving social media. Why, just yesterday, I read about an employee who lost his job for going on Facebook and calling a woman — albeit not a female co-worker — a “slut.”
But, how many of us have explored ways that our employees can use social media to address concerns about workplace harassment?
A big issue for the EEOC Task Force.
Earlier this week, the EEOC Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace tackled this question. Among others, the Task Force heard from Jess Kutch, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Coworker.org. Coworker.org bills itself as a vehicle for employees “to start, run and win campaigns to change your workplace.”
Before the EEOC, Ms. Kutch testified about an incident involving a female employee who “launched a petition saying she was slapped across the face by her male shift manager in front of coworkers, after asking if she could go home.” After a manager supposedly tried to convince the employee to drop the complaint, she launched a petition on coworker.org, which hundreds of co-workers then signed. Coworker.org then promoted the petition on its own Facebook page. That petition was then “liked” and “shared” until, finally, the employee was able to communicate directly with decision-makers at corporate, rather than having to rely on managers at her particular location.
Ms. Kutch further testified about how employees, more generally, use Google, Facebook, and Reddit, among other sites, to obtain information about their legal rights in the workplace.
How about an anonymous online reporting system?
Although not mentioned by Ms. Kutch, I could imagine employees resorting to services like Yik Yak, an app available on most any smartphone. Yik Yak serves as a local bulletin board. That is, it aggregate posts on a particular topic made within a few miles of one another. It also allows users to post anonymous. Thus, an employee could use the app without fear of retaliation. (Of course, Yik Yak could also be used to bully co-workers; indeed, it won’t work at many middle schools and high schools).
While it would be difficult for employers to follow up with specific employees about their workplace issues, they could get a candid snapshot of workplace issues that may not be on the corporate radar.
Focus on creating many effective offline channels.
As a matter of law, companies should provide multiple avenues for employees to complain about discrimination and other forms of harassment. The low-hanging fruit for a lawyer representing an employee-plaintiff is to quote from that portion of employee handbook, which reads, “Employees who believe themselves to be the victim of sexual harassment should report it to their immediate supervisor.” Well, that’s all well and good, except when the immediate supervisor is the harasser.
Therefore, while social media may provide a means for employees to address workplace concerns, hopefully, it’s not a measure of first resort. Rather, it is imperative for employers to provide multiple direct and effective methods for employees to address their concerns and improve the workplace.