This is the world we live in now, one where you can’t take a stand without enduring the wrath of online trolls.
There have always been obstacles that prevent women from reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Will they believe me? Will the problem be fixed? Will my reputation be hurt? Will I wind up losing my job?
It would be nice to think we live in more enlightened times, that a person experiencing abuse could step forward without fear. But the truth — as illustrated by recent allegations of harassment at Uber made by a former employee, an engineer who penned a viral blog post about her experiences — is that those obstacles exist as much as harassment does, and there’s now an added concern: online trolls always eager to attack.
The Uber case began with a blog post by Susan Fowler that detailed a yearlong pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination that she says was met with indifference and even a blaming-the-victim response by the company’s human resources department.
Fowler described one of her early experiences: “On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. … It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”
According to her blog post, Fowler was told the manager “was a high performer” and that they “wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”
Much more is detailed in Fowler’s piece, which went viral and prompted Uber to announce that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would lead an investigation into the claims.
There are many elements of this story that we could discuss, but I want to focus on the risk Fowler took in writing that blog post, particularly when it comes to the inevitable online attacks she would receive.
This is the world we live in now, one where you can’t take a stand without enduring the wrath of online trolls that will try to discredit you, defame you or, in many cases, make you feel unsafe.
In other words, Fowler faced all the usual concerns any employee would consider before reporting bad corporate behavior. But also, particularly as a woman working in the tech industry, she had to consider the online backlash.
A majority of the comments on her blog posts are positive, but the trolls are there: “You had a job, you didn’t like how you were treated, you left. Big (expletive) deal. Shut the (expletive) up and get on with your life, nobody cares about your psycho drama.”
It’s easy to dismiss online harassment. Many say, “Oh, just ignore that, who cares?”
But online harassment is near-impossible to ignore in a modern world that has us online most of the time, and the drumbeat of abuse — via Twitter or Facebook or email — can inflict serious psychological harm.
“One of the misconceptions is that what happens online doesn’t impact people in real life,” said Andrea Weckerle, founder of CiviliNation, a nonprofit group that focuses on online harassment and character assassination. “Online and offline are inextricably interwoven at this point. Anybody who doesn’t understand that, I don’t know what planet they’re living on. We conduct business online, we socialize online, our children are online. It doesn’t even matter if someone is active online, the rest of the world is.”
So beyond concerns of how reporting harassment might affect you internally at work, there are serious concerns — whether you publish something publicly like Fowler did or news of your allegations simply leak out — that your online reputation could be sullied.
“Here’s Ms. Fowler and she’s an engineer,” Weckerle said. “And we know that despite the fact that there are not enough engineers serving all the necessary positions out there, women have a hard time already because it’s such a bro-culture. People like her take a huge risk in speaking out because they risk being branded problem employees.”
Nobody — female or male — should have to think that way when deciding whether to report mistreatment at work.
Weckerle said companies can no longer be wishy-washy about where they stand in an age when hate is so easily slung online: “They have to have a code of conduct. A lot of them don’t, or if they do, it’s very broad. They have to be very clear on what is acceptable and what isn’t. Public relations and legal departments have to come together to craft a serious code of conduct. And then it has to be enforceable and you have to follow through on that. If you hit people where they care, you’re going to start holding people accountable. They’ll start thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be saying that.’”
Also, Weckerle said companies should welcome workers who are willing to speak out. If a company promotes its values, anyone who stands up and reports behavior that runs contrary to those values should be rewarded, not ostracized.
“There is a social good in speaking out against bad actions, against actions that are illegal or immoral,” Weckerle said. “Neutrality is no longer an option for companies. Organizations have to pick a side.”
It’s 2017. We should be breaking down the obstacles that might prevent a worker from reporting abuse, not allowing additional obstacles — like the wrath of internet trolls — to stand in a person’s way.
Companies talk a lot about having cultures that care or cultures that value all employees.
Don’t tell me. Show me.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.