It starts like any other day in the office. You’ve been working away before taking a quick coffee break. Surely there’s no harm in a little Facebook scroll while you wait, right? Amongst the cat videos and viral recipes, you stumble upon something much more sinister. An essay of a comment that’s full of vile language, incredibly inappropriate opinions and intense aggression. Horrified, you look to the commenter, only to see that… It’s John from Marketing. The generally pleasant marketing professional is actually an online troll. Back in the office you spy him sitting at his desk – so quiet, so unassuming. What do you do now?
We’re onto you, John.
Proposed Australian laws will see a crackdown on cyber-bullying in a world-first adult cyber abuse scheme. The laws would see Australia’s eSafety commissioner be given additional powers to verify the identities of trolls. There could be civil penalties of up to $111,000 for individuals who troll and $550,000 for companies who allow trolling on their web pages and platforms. Combined with the knowledge that trolling can cause extreme emotional and mental impact, there’s never been a more important time to learn about it, and how we can address it in the workplace.
What is online trolling?
Online trolling is the action of bullying, making aggressive comments or harassing people in an online forum. These actions mostly come in the form of social media comments, where trolls will target a certain person, group of people or business with the intention of upsetting or humiliating. Those doing the trolling are commonly called ‘trolls’. As trolling interactions are not face-to-face and are sometimes anonymous, trolls often hurl comments at others that they would never dream of saying real life. Behind a keyboard and screen, trolls can really let loose. Writing for The Focus, Bruno Cooke says, “Because of its potentialities for anonymity, the internet has opened the door to a proliferation of trolls. This, along with a feeling of invisibility and the minimisation of authority, gives individuals a sense they are impervious to social mores.”
Why do people troll?
People troll for all sorts of reasons; amusement, boredom, low self-esteem, anger, fear, sadness, desensitisation to the online environment or a sense of obscurity. Spurred by many of these feelings, trolls are often seeking a negative social reward, getting satisfaction from seeing people respond to their comments. One academic even described some trolls as having a need for creating mayhem. “Not all trolls exhibit traits like low affective empathy or psychopathy,” Evita March wrote for the ABC. “Some may simply be motivated by negative social rewards, like creating mayhem. And creating mayhem motivates the troll to keep going back for more.” Many are also suggesting that with the intensifying polarisation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, grouped with elements like a rise in unemployment and more time spent at home, trolling may have increased in 2020. “The overall intensity of this negative event is one current generations have never experienced,” sociology professor Kent Bausman told Forbes. “When you couple this with the additional and simultaneous negative event of skyrocketing unemployment, you have the perfect brew for an escalating collective negative mood. This is what spurs trolling. It is a grotesquely cathartic individual level response to the negative feelings produced by an event(s). I say grotesquely in that relief or pleasure is gained by victimizing and harassing another for their difference in opinion or feeling.”
Impacts of trolling
It’s easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of trolling behaviour when you’re not the target of it. As we live so much of our lives online, and internet trolling is so pervasive (one poll even suggested that 1 in 4 Americans had engaged with trolling), it’s no surprise that there are often real world impacts from this behaviour.
Mental health impacts
Australian reality television personality, Charlotte Dawson, tragically took her own life in 2014 following mental distress over online trolling. Charlotte had long-advocated for the end of online trolling and negativity, publicly confronting her attackers and campaigning against cyberbullying. Following her death her friends called for the legislation of ‘Charlotte’s Law’, which would tackle online bullying for children and adults. If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This is an extreme, but sadly not entirely unusual, reaction to intense trolling. Trolling can cause extensive psychological harm, including feelings of depression, fear, anxiety, isolation and low self-esteem.
No longer feeling safe in online spaces
Over the past 5 years, many celebrities have quit Twitter and Instagram due to relentless trolling. Millie Bobby Brown, Ed Sheeran, Lizzo and Stephen Fry have all packed up shop on their social media platforms, stating that the endless trolling and negativity was no longer bearable. “It’s like lemon on a paper cut,”says Stephen Fry. “It ruins your day.” Of course, these are just the high-profile cases. How many more everyday people would abandon social media when they are subject to trolling? When trolling can quickly escalate from mean comments to violent threats, the internet can feel like a very unsafe place.
John from marketing always seemed like such a well-meaning fellow, didn’t he? If the statistic of 1 in 4 people being online trolls is relatively accurate, what does this mean for the people who are around us everyday? When you find out that the people around you are not who they appear to be, this can cause a great sense of distrust in workplaces and social spaces. When people possess such different offline and online personas, it can be difficult to fully trust the people you’re meant to be able to depend on. 💡 Cyberbullying in the workplace is a big issue, learn more about how you can tackle it.
If your business finds themselves to have a troll on the books, this can affect your reputation as an employer and a public brand. Say you have a public-facing spokesperson on the team – if they’re found to be making toxic statements online, employees and customers may believe that these represent the opinion of your business.
How should HR respond to trolling?
We know that John has been trolling, but what can we do about it so that he can learn about the risks to others, and the company? How can we make sure he stops doing it immediately?
Create a social media policy
Policies are so important when it comes to enforcing a standard of behaviour you expect your employees to follow. Social media policies are becoming increasingly important to have in your policy portfolio. Don’t wait for a social media disaster to happen, get ahead by distributing a social media code of conduct. What should be included in this policy? It should state:
- Who can use the company’s official social media accounts
- Sharing confidential information about the company on social media is prohibited
- Posting defamatory comments about the company on public social media channels is prohibited
- Employees should be considerate and respectful on their social media
- Optional: The employee should consider stating ‘All my opinions are my own’ or ‘My opinions are not representative of my [employer]’
- The repercussions if an employee is found to have breached the policy
- How a staff member can make a report if they see something concerning online from a team member or the public.
Did you know you can access a range of templates including a social media policy from within Employment Hero? If you’d like to learn more, get in touch with one of our small business specialists today. 💡 Read our ultimate guide to workplace policies here.
Investigate the matter
If it’s been brought to your attention that something has happened online, you need to take the time to investigate the matter. As we know with online activity – fake accounts can be made, words can be taken out of context and tones can be misread. Find the evidence of what has occurred and keep a record of it. Investigate whether this is a trend of trolling or a single case from the employee. Once you have the evidence that you need, you are ready to organise a meeting with your employee.
Have a formal meeting about the issue
Schedule a meeting with the person who has been trolling. In the meeting request, be clear about what the meeting will address, including details of the incident and potential disciplinary action. Give the employee sufficient time to get organised (at least 24 hours) so they can prepare anything they need for the meeting.
Present the facts
In the meeting, you should follow a structured procedure. Explain the allegations against the person, how they have impacted staff, the company or members of the public, and what your proposed disciplinary action is. Be sure to lay out all evidence gained in your investigation of the matter. After you’ve finished speaking, allow time for the employee to respond to the matter. They may wish to do this during the meeting or in a written document following the meeting.
Take disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis
Hopefully, most cases will see you capture a troll early in their career, and they can quickly nip this behaviour in the bud. A minor case of trolling – perhaps some rude or crude comments that were not intended to cause major harm – could see you give your employee a formal warning and move on. In a more serious case – lets say a string of online trolling that included targeted aggression or violent threats – you may be required to terminate the employee. As with any termination, it’s important to consult an employment lawyer before you make your decision so you can be sure you are not risking unfair dismissal. Although you should take all matters of trolling seriously, use your discretion in giving a penalty that is proportionate to the employees actions, and again – consult an employment lawyer.
Make your workplace a troll-free zone
Trolls are sadly a part of life on the internet. The most common advice out there for dealing with them in general? Don’t feed the trolls. The more that you respond to a troll’s online comments, the more they feel seen and satisfied in the chaos they are causing. Don’t enter into an argument with them and don’t acknowledge their comment. Taking this approach can see them lose interest and move on to a more reactive target. In the workplace, we need to take a slightly different approach. We shouldn’t let distrust build employees that are trolls with those that aren’t. Leaders need to acknowledge the behaviour and take action to make it clear that aggression and bullying are not employee traits that will be tolerated. Time to shape up or ship out, John! Want to learn more about how you can make your workplace a safer and happier zone for all? Download our How To Stamp Out Bullying in the Workplace Whitepaper now.