Workplace bullying is not a new issue. Emerging technologies and increased reliance on digital communication has seen an increase in the instances of cyberbullying in the workplace. Gossip about a co-worker can be shared instantly across the web to a large audience or even to people outside the organisation. Rumours posted on the internet about a co-worker can seriously affect their reputation and future career. Anybody can post a rumour and once something is on the internet it is very hard to remove or dispute.
Cyberbullying doesn’t just happen during work hours. The increased prevalence of take-home laptops and portable communications devices such as BlackBerries and iPhones make cyberbullying a problem outside of the physical work environment and traditional working hours.
Statistics from the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention show that one in three employees personally experiences bullying at some point in their working lives. At any given time one out of every 10 employees is a target of workplace bullying. Linkme Australia carried out a recent survey of over 1700 employees, and found that 41% of respondents have experienced cyberbullying from their bosses and management. The same survey found that over half of all attacks are carried out by co-workers.
Examples of cyberbullying include:
■Malicious or threatening emails or SMS communications to an individual’s phone or email address
■Electronic communications that feature offensive content such as explicit images or jokes/comments about ethnicity, religion or sexual preference
■Electronic communications aimed at correcting or providing feedback to an individual that are copied to a group with the effect of publicly shaming or demeaning the individual
■Malicious or threatening comments about an individual posted on blogs or social networking sites
■Sharing embarrassing, offensive or manipulated images or videos of an individual
■Screen savers or desktop backgrounds featuring offensive content
Although cyberbullying shares many similarities with more traditional methods of bullying, it has the potential to be more aggressive and escalate a lot faster. The anonymity, large audience, range of attack methods, lack of face-to-face communication and ability to contact the victim 24 hours a day contribute to the severity of cyberbullying. It is important that employers recognise that addressing cyberbullying is essential for creating a safe and productive working environment.
What can be done to prevent it?
In general, the significance of cyberbullying is underestimated and consequentially is not prioritised as an issue requiring attention. Many employers don’t take it seriously, especially when the technology being used is poorly understood. Issues that appear to be trivial or based on a personal gripe can have a devastating impact in the workplace. Employers who recognise this and actively seek to prevent it will be much better placed to avoid the negative consequences of cyberbullying incidents.
Bullying and cyberbullying can seriously affect morale, cause undue fear and stress, emotional exhaustion and serious health and psychological issues. This can result in lost productivity, increase in staff absence and difficulty retaining staff in an unhealthy work environment. Many employers aren’t equipped to deal with sensitive personal and political issues, especially when technology like email, instant messaging and social networking is involved.
The best way to prevent cyberbullying is through policy and education. It is essential that employers include a section specific to cyberbullying in their bullying policy. This section should clearly define all forms of unacceptable behaviour and include both formal and informal methods of addressing potential instances. Once a policy has been implemented it is essential that it is well communicated. Training and communication of policies helps create a positive work culture that discourages bullying from developing in the first place.
■Promote a work culture where all bullying (including cyberbullying) is not tolerated
■Establish a clear, written and well-communicated policy regarding bullying and acceptable use of technology
■Provide training for staff and management in how to deal with bullying in the workplace
■Give concrete examples of what constitutes cyberbullying
■Consider blocking access to Social Networking sites from work computers
■Encourage staff to use their privacy setting on Social Networking Sites
■Remind staff that anything posted on the internet is out of their control and is potentially there forever
■Encourage staff to draft sensitive emails and re-read them a few hours later before sending them