Online sexual harassment in the workplace is unwelcome and offensive communications of a sexual nature received via email or posted on an employer Web site. Although no specific federal laws pertain to online harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides some protection for employees. Many states have laws that prohibit online sexual harassment based on specific criteria.

Online sexual harassment and the law

Under Title VII, online content can be considered illegal sexual harassment if it is unwelcome, of a sexual nature, and is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.

For example, if an employee receives repeated offensive e-mails from a fellow employee that contain sexual jokes or vulgar comments about the recipient's dress or body, the employee may feel threatened or uncomfortable. The unwelcome e-mails have created a hostile work environment and may constitute online sexual harassment. Similarly, persistent e-mails that pester an employee for intimate information or request sexual favors may constitute cyber stalking, a form of sexual harassment.

If offensive pornographic photos or vulgar comments about an employee are posted on a work-related Web site(e.g., an employee discussion forum), an employer may be guilty of online sexual harassment. Courts may evaluate whether a Web site is closely related to the day-to-day operations of a workplace to determine whether the site may contribute to a hostile work environment.

It's important to note that most current laws were not designed to deal with online sexual harassment. Federal and state governments are working to enact legislation to provide additional protection to online victims.

If you believe that you are a victim of online sexual harassment

You must report online sexual harassment to your employer for the employer to be legally responsible. Most employers have a complaint process for reporting and stopping sexual harassment from continuing.

You should follow your employer's complaint process as closely as possible. This will show that your employer was aware of the harassment in case you wish to take future legal action.

Employers may try to prevent online sexual harassment in various ways, such as installing filters in work computers or blocking Web site access for certain users.

If the harassment continues, you may file a charge with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission not more than 180 days after the incident, or 300 days after the incident if a state or local law applies.

It's often a good idea to seek legal counsel before you pursue any action. A lawyer can explain your rights, examine your case, and talk to you about your choices.

Additional resources:

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sexual Harassmen t

Workplace Fairness: Sexual Harassment - Legal Rights

University of Iowa: Sexual Harassment Online-Are Victims Protected?

Related Legal Guides:

Sexual Harassment Laws

Penalties for Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment Charges