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It may be necessary or helpful to talk to employers about the online abuse you’re experiencing.

Online harassment has a direct impact on professional lives, from damaging their reputations, declining productivity and efficiency at work, preventing journalists and writers from gaining future employment to more harmful consequences, such as loss of appetite, difficulty to sleep, and even trauma.

Nearly 23% of journalists reported that the online harassment they faced included threats against their professional standing, according to a global study conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists. Freelancers are particularly concerned by the impact on their professional lives, as they rely on word of mouth and character references to land paid work.

So when a troll starts harassing you in an online forum, or spreads lies about you using their personal online account or a series of dummy accounts, the consequences for your professional life can be serious. In addition, employers are supposed to provide their employees—even freelancers—with a safework place. If you are not aware of specific policies in your organization designed to tackle the issue of online harassment, you might want to ask the question to your employers.

In cases in which a professional contact is eager to help but doesn’t know how, you can direct them to these Best Practices for Employers of Writers and Journalists.

Deciding Who to Talk to and When 

Choosing who to talk to about your online harassment on a personal level can be challenging, let alone deciding to open up about it to a trusted professional contact or employer. This is especially true in contexts where news publications may not always uphold ideal freedom of expression standards due to government-imposed limitations and restrictions. Knowing that there might be some risks involved in exposing aspects of your personal life to employers, we suggest you use your best judgment on deciding who to talk to and when. In other words, start by assessing the threat you’re facing by referring to this page of our Manual and try gauging what risks your professional life may face.

In addition, talking to a current employer, potential employer, or professional contact about your online harassment can elicit feelings of embarrassment and shame, and even a sense of fear that there will be professional consequences for “admitting” to online activity over which you have no control. Yet talking to these contacts can be a way to protect yourself and your work, expand your support community, and gain some control over a volatile situation. Institutions that work with and employ journalists and writers have a vested interest in protecting their own reputations first and foremost, but this doesn’t mean they can’t also defend the reputations of the writers affiliated with them. They also normally understand the obligation to protect their staff and people working for them, in particular the need to implement safety protocols.

Examples of online abuse that could impact your working life include:

  • Threats of violence.
  • Hate speech affiliated with your name.
  • Reputation-harming lies.
  • Concerted defamation campaigns launched by individuals or groups (this can include multifront attacks using real or dummy internet accounts to spread abusive messages on social media, over email, in chat rooms, etc.)
  • Ad hominem attacks in a publication’s comment sections or in Amazon’s customer reviews (which must be distinguished from negative reviews of your work, which might not feel good but are an inevitable part of the publishing process—threatening or ad hominem attacks on your identity and humanity, on the other hand, lend no value to public discussions of your writing.)
  • The publishing of sexually-explicit images that are either authentic or doctored to feature your likeness.

Steps for Talking to Your Professional Contacts

1. Identify your audience and purpose.

Identifying where your target audience falls in your professional ecosystem will help you determine how much information to share about your online abuse. Is this:

  • A book agent or editor with whom you have a close relationship?
  • An editor who throws you freelance work from time to time?
  • A potential full-time employer who is bringing you in for a first-time interview at their company?

Try your best to evaluate your audience’s tolerance for the particular nature of your abuse and your own comfort with sharing it. Threats of sexual violence, hate speech that elicits feelings of fear or trauma associated with your cultural heritage, and anything linking your name to sexual or violent imagery can be difficult to discuss in a professional context. Consider the following:

  • Does your company have an HR presence you can invite into the conversation, such as someone who might be trained to act as an intermediary in delicate situations?
  • How close are you to your target audience? Do you have the kind of relationship in which you can share information about your personal life without judgment? Or would you prefer to maintain a certain level of decorum and address your online harassment in a more general way?

Once you’ve identified the particulars of your audience, clarify why you want to address the issue of your online harassment. Are you:

  • Worried a potential employer might look you up online and catch wind of the abuse?
  • Concerned that an agent, publisher, or employer who hires you on a freelance basis might drop you out of fear of associating their brand with your online harassment?
  • Fearful that local authorities may wrongfully convict you for practicing freedom of expression? Concerned that your employer might be contacted by your harasser(s) in a bid to get you fired?

The above list is not exhaustive; there are plenty of other reasons why you might want to talk to a professional contact. Announcing that you are facing online harassment is a way for you to contextualize the abuse and counter any existing harmful narratives about you.

2. Identify your end goal.

Once you’ve established who you’re speaking to and why you wish to speak to them, identify your desired outcome. Do you:

  • Wish to tell your side of the story?
  • Want to convince a potential employer/publisher that despite the false/negative information about you online, you are worth investing in as a writer?
  • Want to enlist a specific form of support, such as asking your employer to:
    • Circulate a statement on your behalf, either internally or publicly.
    • Address the harassment on the institution’s own social media channels.
    • Involve company security and/or ask for tech support.
    • Ask your employer to reconsider their comment-moderation policy.
    • Wish to enlist an employer as an ally defending you against any arbitrary convictions for practicing freedom of expression?
    • Ask your employer to take specific steps so as not to escalate the abuse against you (see Best Practices for Employers of Writers and Journalists to learn more.)

Come to the conversation with a clear vision for what you hope to achieve. Consider this end goal your “thesis statement” for the conversation: state it outright at the beginning of the conversation before delving into deeper context. For example: “If you Google me right now, you’ll find an entirely false and frankly offensive blog post about me. I’d like to address this head-on and correct the record.”

3. When do you want to have this conversation

You may need to have this conversation in the midst of online harassment, but it would be ideal to start the conversation during the recruiting or onboarding process. Consider asking questions like: Do you have any policy /internal protocol on online harassment, as this is one of the biggest safety threats? Are there resources to protect and support employees who face online harassment? If your employer has no idea, you can refer them to PEN America’s protocols on online harassment (see Best Practices for Employers of Writers and Journalists to learn more.)

4. Assess your audience, and start with the basics. 

Not everyone is familiar with internet platforms, not to mention the havoc online harassment can wreak on a person’s professional life and well-being. Take stock of your audience’s digital fluency: If it’s low, prepare to discuss your abuse in simple, easy-to-understand terms, and try to be open to any clarifying questions that are posed. (These questions are rarely meant to cast doubt on your experience but rather to clarify what’s happened.) Without using language that’s too tech-oriented or might require further explanation (memes, tweets, GIFs, DMs, etc.), do your best to describe where and how your abuse occurred. If necessary, explain why it is particularly damaging, due to the topic covered, your identity, your sources. It might help to prepare a few statements, or even to write down a few facts about online harassment and its impact. Once you’ve established a baseline for the conversation, you can go from there, deciding how granular to get about your own experience(s).

5. Determine what degree of content to share in a professional context.

This step will be different for everyone depending on the person to whom you are speaking and the particular nature of your online harassment. Disclosing the specifics of your abuse can be a necessary measure that helps demonstrate the severity of your online harassment, but some people just won’t feel comfortable sharing details that are sexually explicit, violent, or prejudiced. If you’re not comfortable speaking explicitly about your online harassment, consider submitting a description of the abuse in writing. If you are comfortable speaking about your online harassment, prepare language in advance. If you’ve been taking screenshots or otherwise documenting the abuse, it may be helpful to bring that along to spare yourself from having to repeat painful or offensive language.

6. Explain why you feel employers have a responsibility to address and respond to online harassment. 

If your employer seems ambivalent about the importance of protecting you and other employers during episodes of online harassment, it may be useful to present them with the facts: The CPJ and RSF have published reports on the biggest threat to journalism: online abuse. The ICFJ found that 73% of women journalists are targeted. You could also direct your employer to UNESCO’s recommendations for protecting journalists, or the IPI’s report on best practices which was created based on research in 45 leading European newsrooms.

7. Emphasize how the online abuse has made an impact on your life.

Tying your online harassment to a concrete outcome will help your professional contact see things from your point of view and may help to address any doubts they have as to the severity of online harassment. Use first-person statements such as “Online harassment is interfering with my productivity as a journalist,” “I’m afraid for my safety and need your support,” “I’m concerned this episode of online harassment has harmed my reputation and would appreciate you making a statement on my behalf.”

8. If the conversation is not going as well as you’d hoped, don’t panic.

If the person you’re speaking to lacks empathy for your position, or is brimming with compassion but can’t find a way to help you, then step back and consider your options. Is there a different professional contact to whom you can talk at the same institution, someone to enlist as an ally in your struggle? Is there a particular article about online harassment that might help your employer understand its severity and impact? Would it help to share our Best Practices for Employers of Writers and Journalists with your target audience? It’s possible that not everyone can or will want to support you during an episode of online abuse. This is not your fault. Keep trying, and always be sure to tap into your support communities, online and off.

In some cases, an employer might wish to conduct their own investigation into the abuse and verify your side of the story. This is an understandable, if sometimes frustrating, step for an institution to take: They have their own reputation to defend, and will likely want to verify your side of the story before taking any action. (Think about it this way: If an online harasser contacted your employer demanding that you be fired immediately, you would hope that your employer would take the same steps to fact-check the harasser’s accusations and find out the claims are false.) Offering documentation of the online harassment can go a long way.