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How to respond to workplace cyberbullying and harassment

Published 4 Jan 2021
7 min read

Bullying is a huge issue for workplaces all over the world. Over two-thirds of Australian employees have experienced bullying at work, according to a study from the University of South Australia. It’s an issue that could be costing Australian workplaces up to $36billion a year. Cyberbullying is increasingly becoming an insidious part of the problem. You may see staff begin to disengage or leave your team before managers and business owners realise what’s going on. Cyberbullying can cause distress to an employee long after they’ve left the office and is a very real issue for remote workers. The nature of 24/7 device use can have employees experiencing cyberbullying from their first waking moment until late into the night, causing greater feelings of isolation and paranoia in their personal life. As this bullying takes place under the cover of technology – how can employers respond to a problem that they have no clear way of witnessing? Woman looking at smartphone in bed  

What is workplace cyberbullying?

Safe Work Australia defines workplace bullying as ‘repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety’. The term covers all types of threatening behaviour between staff, including abusive and offensive language, intimidating conduct, practical jokes, unjustified criticism, withholding information, spreading rumours and changing work arrangements (such as rosters) to deliberately inconvenience an employee. Workplace cyberbullying can see any of these actions happen between staff online. This could be over work email, on work messaging systems or on personal social media accounts. Some examples of workplace cyberbullying include;

  • Offensive, aggressive or intimidating emails or instant messages
  • Threatening emails, that might seem inoffensive but lead to unfair outcomes – like giving an employee too much work, or expecting employees to complete work at unreasonable hours
  • Comments or messages on an employee’s personal social media accounts
  • Spreading rumours by any digital means
  • Impersonation – when a worker pretends to be someone else (like a manager or business owner) to confuse or embarrass another employee

“Adult cyberbullying in the workplace can be more subtle, but is equally distressing,” said Dan Raisbeck of anti-bullying charity The Cybersmile Foundation to The Guardian. “The outcomes are often the same – to humiliate, undermine and distress the person being targeted.” People from outside an organisation – including customers, students, patients or members of the public – can also be capable of workplace cyberbullying. Woman sitting at work desk looking distressed

What isn’t workplace bullying?

Not all uncomfortable or unpleasant workplace experiences would be classed as bullying. Bullying would not include;

  • Setting reasonable goals and deadlines
  • Discussing unsatisfactory performance in an honest and constructive way
  • Deciding not to promote a worker for professional reasons
  • Disciplinary action or termination of employment with fair and justified reasoning

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Is it cyberbullying or online harassment?

Did you know that discrimination or sexual harassment doesn’t fall under the same banner as bullying? Bullying can be extremely unpleasant for the victims, and could lead to the bullies being disciplined – but the bullying itself may not necessarily be unlawful. Harassment and discrimination are unlawful and there can be legal consequences.

Online workplace discrimination

This would see an employer or employee target someone based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy or religion. Online, this discrimination would see someone make offensive comments or use slurs over text, email, instant messaging or social media. Workers are protected against this discrimination under anti-discrimination legislation, plus workplace relations and human rights laws.

Online sexual harassment

This would see an employer or employee display unwelcome sexual advances, ask for sexual favours or display sexual behaviour that intends to make another person feel offended, intimidated or humiliated. Online, this harassment could include making unwelcome sexual comments, sending explicit images or sharing personal images of the victim via text, email, instant messaging or with social media messaging.

What part does social media play?

Social media has added another troubling dimension to cyberbullying, online discrimination and online harassment. Social media not only enables further ways of contacting a victim – whether that be by messaging them, commenting on posts, or sharing posts with them – bullies can use personal social media content as ‘ammunition’ to further target the victim. “When I would put something on Instagram, they [the bullies] would screenshot it and mock it,” a victim told The Guardian. “Even when I was away from the office or on holiday, I’d think about what I would post and second guess myself. I’m normally a very happy and confident person. It really destroyed my confidence for a bit and made me meeker.” Researchers suggest this issue is getting progressively worse as workers build up their online identities. It may be a critical issue for a Gen Z workforce that are super-users of social media. “The potential effects of cyberbullying are harder for those people who were heavily involved in social media,” said social scientist Atte Oksanen to Medium. “If one’s social life is much online, it is very difficult to escape bullies.” When it comes to outside parties cyberbullying employees, social media is often a key way for people outside the workplace to do harm. Some industries are more at risk than others. People working in journalism and media can face intense cyberbullying (‘trolling’), as they are often required to interact with the public as part of their roles. A 2020 UNESCO survey found that 73% of women journalists had experienced online violence. “It is a war of attrition,” journalist Van Badham told Fairfax Media of her trolling experiences. “And the effect is cumulative. When it is happening every day in different forms and different ways it is insidious. The way the online space has enabled people to feel entitled to carry out this abuse is shocking.”

What are the effects of workplace cyberbullying and online harassment?

According to Safe Work, the individual experiencing bullying and harassment can experience:

  • distress, anxiety, depression, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • physical illness – muscular tension, headaches, fatigue and digestive problems
  • reduced work performance, concentration and decision making ability
  • loss of self-esteem
  • feelings of isolation
  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family and friends
  • thoughts of suicide

In addition to this list, those experiencing cyberbullying may feel a greater sense of unease and paranoia in their personal lives. The intrusive nature of cyberbullying can be a constant cause of stress, with individuals having few options to create distance between themselves and the bullying. Cyberbullying comes at a great cost to organisations. Cyberbullying can easily take hold of a workforce and quickly break down a positive company culture, as it often inspires a ‘gang/pack mentality‘ within teams. Bullying can lead to issues with decreased productivity, absenteeism and staff retention. Man sitting at work desk looking distressed

How can employers address workplace cyberbullying?

Whilst you may not immediately be able to recognise when cyberbullying is happening, there are safeguards, processes and solutions employers can implement to stop it.

Implement a workplace bullying policy

All new employees should read and sign an anti-bullying policy upon joining the team. This policy should clearly define what constitutes bullying and cyberbullying, discrimination, harassment and inappropriate behaviour. The policy should make the employee aware of actions to take if they experience or witness these behaviours. It’s also a good idea to create a social media-specific policy that acts as a guide for conduct in that particular space. You can advise the worker against posting negative comments about the company or their colleagues and clearly state that discriminatory speech or harassment violates company values. Frequently reiterate both of these policies. 💡 Learn more about how to create a Workplace Bullying and Harassment Policy.

Take reports of cyberbullying seriously

Be grateful when an employee reports cyberbullying to HR, as taking action can be an extremely intimidating thing for an individual to do. The worst response you can have is to disregard the report or delay your investigation. Make sure the employee is aware that you will resolve the issue quickly and confidentially. Explain the process by which the matter will be handled and share any timeframes. Take a neutral approach, allow all parties to respond and keep records of conversations and interviews. Act in accordance with your bullying policy – help this guide your decision – and communicate the outcome in a thoughtful and professional manner. Allow room for review if the parties are not happy with the outcome. 💡 Make sure you’re taking disciplinary action the right way. Read our blog on official warning procedures. If the bullying is happening from an external party, like the examples of journalists being trolled, offer your staff assistance in moderating their social media accounts. You may even wish to put a social media policy in place for your organisation’s platforms, making it clear to the public that the company moderators will delete any aggressive comments.

Follow up and offer support

Check in with the employee that reported the cyberbullying to see if the actions taken by management have been effective. Allow them to state any feedback or ongoing concerns they may have. Offer your support, whether that is through a regular check-in with the employee, highlighting mental health resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or giving them some time to find their feet after a bullying incident.

End bullying in your workplace

Everybody has a right to work in a place where they feel safe, comfortable and free to be themselves. For more information about cyberbullying at work visit Safe Work. If you have found any of the content in this article distressing, help is available. In Australia, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Find global mental health hotlines here.

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