More Online, More Harassment?

As more companies expect executives and managers to maintain public profiles, harassment may be disproportionately affecting women. 

When Linda accepted her new C-suite role, she updated her online profile with her new job title. Her boss also encouraged her to begin maintaining a professional online profile. But within days, trouble struck: abusive comments, mostly in her private messages (and thus invisible to her bosses). The abuse ran the gamut—from name-calling to physical threats to sexual harassment.

As firms try to revive or grow business in the post-pandemic era, many are nudging employees and executives to maintain public personas online, as part of corporate social-media marketing efforts. But experts say that’s created a little-noticed problem: an onslaught of harassment of women and minorities. A 2021 study by Pew Research found that more than two in five social-media users experience harassment, a figure that has held steady even as the nature of the harassment—including sexual harassment and stalking—has grown more severe. The harassment is gender-based about half the time, the study found, and women are twice as likely as men to find the experience upsetting.

In pursuing their social-media efforts, companies tend to not notice the hazards of this part of the job. “Requesting people to merge personal and professional online worlds is a very big ask, especially if you don’t prepare or support them,” says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry. “You’re asking someone to wade into dangerous waters.”

Women and minorities have coped with gender- and ethnicity-based harassment for eons. But the problem has increased as more diverse groups have entered the C-suite during a pandemic that has left many dependent on the internet for professional networking. At many companies, online moderators must not only field abuse and harassment, but also review vast amounts of content, some of which can be difficult or disturbing. The viciousness of that content is reflected in the way companies screen potential moderators. “We assess for resilience,” says Barbara Rosen, global accounts lead for the technology market at Korn Ferry. “How do you bring in people who are more resilient to look at things that are, frankly, horrible?” Not surprisingly, it’s a high-turnover role.

Many women and minorities know this, and instinctively pause before posting something online, says Deepali Vyas, global head of the FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. She herself keeps her online posts “pretty neutral” and says she doesn’t talk about her ethnicity much. “I’m a diverse Indian woman with a C-suite audience, and perspectives like mine matter, but online, conforming and not provoking backlash is important.” Like many women, she frequently posts in private groups where she knows the audience will be supportive.

Experts say that playbooks for workplace social media are necessary to protect employees against negative experiences. “You do need to have guidance and guidelines,” says Peter McDermott, senior client partner for global corporate affairs and investor relations at Korn Ferry. “Positioning employees externally on a digital medium is going to be interactive.” A social-media playbook can provide sample responses to negative comments, as well as protocols for reporting and deleting inappropriate comments. “A lot of times the inappropriate commenters or harassers are bots,” says McDermott. These guidelines are particularly important, experts say, because they can spare employees from having to make judgement calls about comments like “I hate your product” or “I hate your product, and you’re dumb.” “It’s not always black-and-white,” says Annie Lohmeyer, a senior associate at Korn Ferry. She suggests that companies post their community guidelines publicly, on professional websites or profiles; these guidelines might, for example, state that comments need to be on topic, relevant, and respectful.

Vyas encourages blending diversity and inclusion training with the coaching that investor relations and communications teams receive in what they should and shouldn’t say. “There’s currently lot of talk and training about how to put a topic out onto social media, but it falls off a cliff when an employee gets backlash. How will she be supported?” For his part, Andrew De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas, believes that training is not enough by itself. Management must make a point of showing that training matters. “Ensure that visible women leaders through the company are attending the trainings and encourage it, so that employees value and learn the skills,” he says.