Earlier today, I had the chance to speak with Shanti Atkins, CEO of ELT, Inc., a San Franscisco firm that specializes in ethics and compliance training. She filled me in on the new frontier of virtual sexual harassment --- that is, sexual harassment done over instant messaging, Facebook, email, smartphones and other technologies.
Cases of virtual harassment are out there. Last month, a 22-year-old female former LA Fitness employee in Oregon filed a lawsuit against former three managers for texting her highly-explicit sexual messages and then firing her after she went over their heads to complain.
In another case, a Florida Hooters waitress is suing her manager for "sexting" her with explicit text messages and photos.
Atkins thinks cases of virtual sexual harassment will only get more common as a younger generation of tech savvy and casually-minded employees enters the workplace. Virtual sexual harassment is "a huge, growing problem because the technologies are developing faster than companies can keep up," Atkins says. ELT has started offering simulation video training around virtual sexual harassment for employees.
The EEOC received 13,867 sexual harassment claims in 2008, but it's not clear how many of them are virtual harassment claims. With so many technologies out there, however, virtual sexual harassment claims aren't going away. Employers will have their training cut out for them on this issue, and employees will have to be careful. "When they're hiding behind a virtual wall, people lose their minds," Atkins says.