A “whisper network” is what it’s called when people quietly, privately, warn one another about other people who are dangerous.

A whisper network is different from a report or complaint, because it deliberately avoids people in positions of authority.

You can whisper about somebody and report them, or you can whisper first and report later, or you can do one and not the other. They’re totally separate things.

How whisper networks work

Whisper networks have been around forever. Here’s how they work.

Someone gets harassed. They tell one or more friends. Those people tell other people. Gradually, the harasser gets a reputation and people learn to avoid them.

Some whisper networks are centred around a single workplace. In those, the warnings are usually verbal.

Some are centred around an entire industry. In those, the warnings might be digital. Here are some examples of digital whisper networks:

  • In the U.K., women working in and around parliament made a group chat that they used to warn one another about politicians and other parliamentary workers who had harassed them.
  • In the U.S., women working in journalism made a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men,” where they shared stories of men working in the media who had harassed them. 
  • Sex workers have been collecting and publishing “bad date” reports for decades, warning one another about violent or dangerous clients. Those reports used to be printed on paper, but now they are usually posted online or shared by email.

The three big problems with whisper networks

Whisper networks don’t reach everybody

To warn somebody, you have to trust them, at least a little. (Because they could tell the harasser or your bosses, and that might get you in trouble.) That means people tend to whisper only with people they already know and trust.

So people who aren’t socially connected are the least likely to be warned. That’s bad, because they are also the people most likely to be harassed.

The people left out of whisper networks tend to be:

  • new to the workplace
  • new to the industry
  • younger than everybody else
  • racialized,  2SLGBTQIA+, or have a disability
  • neurodivergent, especially if they have autism
  • not very socially connected
  • not fluent in the majority workplace language

Whisper networks do nothing to make the harasser stop harassing people

They make it possible for some people to avoid harassment. But they don’t stop the harasser from trying to harass people, and they don’t do anything to punish the harasser or remove them from the workplace.

Because of that, a lot of people are critical of whisper networks. But we’re not. Stopping a harasser is not what a whisper network is for. A whisper network is purely for warning people. It doesn’t stop anybody from reporting or taking any other kind of action.

Whisper networks can get you in legal trouble

This is less likely to happen with a verbal network, and more likely to happen with one that leaves an evidence trail, like text messages or social media posts.

If you say someone is a harasser, or did some awful thing, it is possible that they will sue you for defamation. “Defamation” is a legal term. It describes what it’s called when someone publicly says something about somebody else that isn’t true and that hurts the other person’s reputation. It can be something published, which is often called “libel,” or something spoken—in some parts of the country, this is called “slander.”

Being sued for defamation doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Defamation lawsuits are getting more common than they used to be because today there is more likely to be a digital trail of the things we say and share.

Read more about defamation in our article about going public.

How to use whisper networks to protect yourself and other people

Here are five tips for making your whisper network work as well as possible.

Recognize a warning when you get one

Sometimes a warning is direct, like this:

“Jacob is a sexual predator. People have been complaining about him for years, but nobody stops him.”

But it’s much more common for them to be indirect, like this:

“Have you met Ryan? You’re gonna want to brace yourself. He’s a very friendly guy.”

Or this:

“I like Dave a lot. But I steer clear of him when he’s been drinking.”

Or this:

“Alain seems really into you. Ha ha. Be careful!”

People will practically never tell you flat out that someone is a harasser.

That’s because they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble. So instead of telling you directly, they will hint.

We’re going to dig into this a little, because some people have trouble recognizing this kind of hinting, and we don’t want you to miss it.

Here’s how to tell if someone is warning you:

  • They’ll probably do it when the two of you are alone together.
  • They probably won’t directly say that the person is a harasser. Instead they may use language that, if you quote them, won’t sound too bad. Like “flirty” or “old school” or “creepy.”
  • They usually won’t give you any facts. (They may know facts, but not tell them to you.) Instead they may say things that are vague and general, like “Kevin has a reputation” or “Everybody knows about Sylvain.”
  • They may talk about how much they like or admire the person they’re warning you about. You can totally ignore that part. They’re just doing it to protect themselves in case you tell people what they said.
  • Somewhere in what they say, maybe very buried, they will tell you to stay away from a person or group of people. That’s the important part.

A good rule of thumb is that, if someone is taking the time to warn you, then you should take them seriously, even if their tone and manner don’t seem very serious.

Thank the person who warned you

The person who warned you is taking a risk. They’re doing you a favour. You should thank them, so they know you understand what’s happening and won’t report them to the harasser or your boss.

Contribute your own warnings to the network

The more people who participate in a whisper network, the better it works.

People often hesitate to share information with the whisper network because they don’t think what they know is important enough to be worth sharing. But that’s not the right way to think about it. Your little piece of information may not be important. But put together with other pieces, it might be.

Here’s something that happened to someone we know:

At a conference, a man and a woman had drinks together, and then he hit on her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. She told a friend, and that friend told her friends. Once everybody had compared notes, it turned out that the guy had behaved badly with women at conferences several times before. They told the conference organizer. She investigated, kicked the guy out, and banned him from future conferences.

The moral of this story: Don’t hesitate to share information. Harassers want you to be quiet. But you don’t need to be.

Bring new people into the network

This is really important! The bigger the network is, the more it can protect people.

It’s especially important to bring in people who are new to your workplace or industry, who are young, not fluent in the majority workplace language, racialized, 2SLGBTQIA+, disabled, or neurodivergent, and people who are shy, timid, or antisocial.

These are the people most likely to get harassed, and they’re also the ones most likely to be left out of whisper networks. You can fix that, by bringing them in.

Consider shifting from whispering to reporting

If people aren’t reporting sexual harassment at your workplace (or in your industry), there’s probably a very good reason. We’re not here to push you to report if reporting doesn’t feel wise.

But, if someone is getting named as a harasser over and over again, then it’s probably worth considering whether it’s time to formally report.

You shouldn’t pressure other people to report, and you definitely shouldn’t report what happened to someone else without their permission.

But if you’re finding there’s a person in your circles who’s repeatedly harassing people, it’s worth having a conversation inside the network about whether it’s time to report them.