Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day and Harassment in the Electronic Workplace

Today we celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day, the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Saint Valentine at the hands of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Of course, we now celebrate this holiday by giving our loved ones heart-shaped candy and greeting cards! Although this may seem a strange cause for celebrating love, there is a romantic legend behind this otherwise morbid holiday. According to legend, the Christian priest Valentine was executed because he was performing marriage ceremonies for young men and women in violation of Roman law. Although this legend is now widely questioned—even by the Catholic Church—the romantic holiday lives on.

Valentine’s Day can be especially tricky for employers. Romance in the workplace can create a variety of headaches for employers, including liability for harassment. While employers can keep watch for inappropriate relationships in the workplace, it can be much more difficult to monitor the electronic exploits of employees on Valentine’s Day. Employees can send each other messages and images that are harassing, unwelcome, or sexually explicit instantaneously via text, email, or social media messages. Even if the communications are sent using the employer’s technology, many employers lack the time and ability to monitor employees’ electronic communications.

So what can an employer do to fulfill its obligations to prevent and promptly respond to inappropriate or harassing behavior this Valentine’s Day? In short, the same things it has always done. Employers should have and clearly communicate a policy defining and prohibiting harassment, including sexual harassment. The employer’s technology and social media policies should make clear that harassment through electronic means is not tolerated. When made aware of any harassing behavior, employers should take complaints seriously and act promptly to investigate the conduct. Although these strategies may seem like old news, employers know well that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As we commemorate another Valentine’s Day, pause and reflect on a few truths. Office romances happen. Candy hearts still taste like chalk, even if they now say “TEXT ME.” And harassment is harassment, no matter the means of the communication.

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