Employment Anti-Discrimination Laws and Cyberbullying in the Workplace

Harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, is probably about as old as the workplace itself, but new and changing technologies are constantly challenging our legal mechanisms for dealing with this sort of behavior. In New York City, municipal, state, and federal laws prohibit sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination. The court decisions and regulations implementing these laws, however, do not necessarily address every possible scenario in which harassment may occur. Harassment that primarily occurs in the virtual world, such as on social media platforms or via email or text message, does not necessarily fit into our existing legal framework. Few court cases have directly addressed cyberbullying, as online harassment is often called, but the courts are sure to have to deal with the issue eventually. A particularly heartbreaking story out of Virginia shows the extent of the damage that cyberbullying among co-workers can cause, as well as the need for legal protections to deal with it.

Anti-discrimination statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 treat sexual harassment as a prohibited form of discrimination based on sex or gender. To rise to the level of a Title VII violation, the harassment must be based on the recipient’s sex, although this should not imply that members of the same sex cannot sexually harass one another. The harassment must also present a situation in which either the terms and conditions of employment are premised on some sort of sexual activity (quid pro quo sexual harassment), or the harassment occurs to such an extent that it renders the workplace intolerable (hostile work environment). Cyberbullying could fit into either of these categories.

A concise definition of “cyberbullying” is probably impossible. It includes hostile or harassing messages sent directly to someone via text message, email, or social media. It can also include posts that are visible to the public on blogs and social media platforms that are intended to harass a person or a group of people, such as by mocking or insulting them, or by portraying them in a false light. Individual acts of cyberbullying might, at first glance, seem fairly harmless, but cyberbullying is rarely limited to individual acts. It might involve ongoing, repeated messages or posts from one person, or a sustained campaign of harassment by large numbers of people. The impact of cyberbullying, according to research, can include negative effects on people’s health and productivity. In a few tragic cases, cyberbullying has allegedly been a contributing factor in suicide.

Many of the recent legal developments surrounding cyberbullying have focused on criminal law, such as the federal prosecution of a woman under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for the online harassment of a teenage girl who committed suicide. More recently, a New Jersey man pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted invasion of privacy in connection with the use of a hidden video camera to record his college roommate. The intersection between cyberbullying and workplace harassment has gained renewed attention because of the story of a firefighter in Fairfax County, Virginia who committed suicide earlier this year, reportedly after she received multiple harassing messages in an online forum from her colleagues.

The sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of job applicants, employees, and former employees in New York City. We help our clients assert claims for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other unlawful employment practices. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

University Dismisses Chair of Philosophy Department After Report Finds Extensive Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 6, 2014

Archie Comics co-CEO Accused of Sexual Harassment in New York Lawsuit, New York Employment Attorney Blog, March 21, 2012

Protection Against Transgender Discrimination in Employment is Available to Some Employees, but Not All, New York Employment Attorney Blog, October 19, 2011

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