THE BLOG

When a LinkedIn Connection Crosses the Line

05/21/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

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Nowadays, Linkedin users are paying more attention to who views their profiles, especially prior to connecting. It is commonplace to joke about this behavior as "professional stalking." You may say with tongue-in-cheek to a repeat visitor, "Hey, I saw you checking me out on LinkedIn. What are you doing, stalking me?" But sometimes, people are put in the unsettling position of having to field unwanted sexual advances, obscene remarks, or threats via social media, email, instant message, or other forms of electronic communication. By legal definition, that is cyberharassment.

On the surface, one might think that online sexual harassment is an offense reserved for Facebook or Twitter. People have been known to be sloppy, insensitive, and condemnatory on those sites. LinkedIn, the professional social networking site, is evidently not immune to unsavory user behavior. I have received several emails from female colleagues who have expressed anguish and humiliation over inappropriate, sexually-charged messages from male peers from whom they have accepted LinkedIn connection requests. They feel degraded and victimized.

One such email came from a woman whom I met at a conference at which I delivered a keynote. A generally trusting soul, she is an avid LinkedIn user who engages with her network on a regular basis. She routinely receives and accepts connection requests from professionals she has never met. She expressed obvious remorse over accepting one invitation in particular. It came from a gentleman colleague who, after an innocent enough start, sent her a flurry of lewd messages over the course of several months. She wondered what recourse was available to her.

My initial response was that she should not let this event shatter her faith in the power of LinkedIn. This was an isolated nut-job who has some serious self-esteem issues and feels the need to act out on a social networking site. I reinforced the notion that we all have noble goals in business, and try to surround ourselves with high-caliber people who are focused on mutual support and collaboration. When it gets ugly or illegal, it is wise to seek legal counsel.

On the Nature of Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment

Personal attacks carried out on social media sites are an unfortunate byproduct of our digital world. The field of crime science continues to grow in this area as lawmaking bodies and law enforcement officials wrestle with issues around online behavior. Our growing concerns with privacy, security, and liberty on the Internet have necessitated new precautions in daily use, as well as the drafting of new statutes. We don't know how vulnerable we are through our electronic devices until after the hit is taken. (Those brilliant folks among us who are passionate about keeping us safe from digital predators will not want for work in coming years.)

Although the terms are used interchangeably, stalking and harassment define differently. Stalking involves the act of following another person or people, while harassment is tied to behavior that intends to irritate or intimidate. Harassment encompasses behaviors that threaten an individual or group, often manifesting from deeper-rooted psychological problems. Stalking is considered a form of harassment, and is focused on activity designed to force contact on the subject. Both distract to the point where normal social functioning is compromised. (Source: WiseGeek)

For this writing, I am focusing on aberrant online sexual behaviors, which exhibit more than we may think. This can run the gamut from a seemingly innocuous message ("Hey, you're pretty!") to an all-out assault on someone's sensibilities (constant badgering and sexual innuendo through text, email, social networking sites, etc.). Some are isolated occurrences that are confined to the workplace; others follow people all across the Internet. The online laws, enacted state-by-state, have aligned with the real world harassment laws. The constant thread is the emotional distress inflicted upon the harassee.

Safeguarding yourself against Cyberharassment

LinkedIn is a socially responsible corporation that is focused on creating the best possible experience for its user base. But the company is merely the platform provider. It cannot (nor should it) police everything that goes on inside the lines. As stipulated in the LinkedIn User Agreement, members are urged to exercise discretion in their online interactions, restrict their connecting to people that they know, and not "harass, abuse, and harm another person." With varying degrees of faith, most LinkedIn users will accept invitations from strangers. Even with tight vetting, some connections may slip past the sentry and commit horrible breaches of professional etiquette.

Daliah Saper, an attorney experienced in cases involving online sexual harassment, believes that the key decision on the receiving end of a harassing or bullying message is to know when to brush it off and know when to respond. According to Saper, "Unless a statement is reputation-damaging or threatening, it is best not to pursue." In fielding unwanted sexual advances from a LinkedIn connection, Saper adds: "When a woman feels that something is the least bit 'off' about someone at any point in the process, she should trust her intuition and disengage."

Blocking and Reporting LinkedIn Profiles

Professionals review LinkedIn profiles for various reasons, primarily because they are curious to learn more about a colleague, prospect, or would-be connection. Whereas profile visits are a key piece of social networking strategy, many users choose to maneuver anonymously or incognito on LinkedIn. In other words, they will not be identifiable by those whose profiles they visit. Surreptitious LinkedIn profile viewing is the business equivalent of cruising.

All LinkedIn accountholders are given full control of their visibility settings. Those who conceal the entire profile, or sections of content therein, limit their effectiveness on the site. Partial visibility of the page will not necessarily deny visitors access to the accountholder. If you are on the receiving end of a harassing message, there are a few actions that you can take. You can block this person from further activity on your LinkedIn profile, report them to LinkedIn, or both.

Should you opt to block a LinkedIn user, mutual access to each other's LinkedIn profiles would be denied, as would any further messaging via your respective LinkedIn accounts. All previous correspondence would thereafter be irretrievable. Prior to blocking, be sure to screen capture the message(s) or save the version that comes through your private email address. You never know; one day, you may need it.

When you report a LinkedIn user, you are flagging that person's profile for internal review by LinkedIn, and can submit details on the behavior in question. The company will investigate the individual for a possible violation of its User Agreement, and determine if the behavior is detrimental to the LinkedIn community.

Attention Ladies: No Glamor Shots on your LinkedIn Profile

There is a fine line between social networking for business and mating behavior. In fact, LinkedIn profiles on dating sites bear some similarities. Both are designed to attract the right people, "sell" you, and influence a desired outcome. The photo is prominently displayed on each profile page. But in our superficial society, there is undue emphasis placed on physical appearance and facial characteristics. A beautiful woman who posts the wrong photo can draw the wrong type of attention from the wrong people.

The selection of a professional photo--one that downplays sexuality, exudes trust, and inspires confidence in your abilities--is recommended. I have spoken to numerous women's leadership groups. When this topic surfaces, and it invariably does, it is usually met with a guarded chuckle. The headshot is the most vital piece of personal branding on LinkedIn. Yes, women ought to put their best foot forward on LinkedIn, but would be well-served to upload a more conservative picture to the profile page and keep the glam shot in the hard-drive.

Parting Thoughts

♦ On LinkedIn, as well as other interactive media, our inferences will only take us so far. There is only so much you can ascertain about someone on a profile review or in a discussion thread. Try as we may, we can never get into the mind of another human being. Naturally, we would like to trust every person that invites us to connect, but that trust has to be earned and--more importantly--maintained.

♦ LinkedIn is a respect-based communication platform that insists on adherence to the highest standards of professional conduct. Unfortunately, there are those that are not on the same page. They feel that the rules (laws) don't apply to them, and they can act without regard for people's emotions.

♦ Handling inquires of such a delicate nature opens my eyes to the fragility of the human condition online. The insular world of the Internet can be a breeding ground for antisocial behavior, and making it safe is everyone's responsibility. Social networking should be personally rewarding and enjoyable. But when we are made to feel degraded, or are harried by those we meet in the virtual world, it loses its fun.