Cyber-Bullying: The Latest Weapon in the Hands of Workplace Bullies

Erica Pinsky

Imagine arriving at work to find an angry manager at your door, waving an email she got from one of her team at you and demanding that this ungrateful and disrespectful employee be fired. A quick glance at the email gets your blood boiling even before you’ve had a coffee – it is filled with insults and denigrating comments. To make matters worse you see it has been cc:d to the entire executive team.

You do your best to calm the manager down and then arrange to meet with the employee. A quick look at her employee file reveals that she is a long standing employee with a stellar performance record, recently promoted into her current position. It is quickly apparent that something doesn’t add up.

Your suspicions are confirmed when the employee arrives at your office. You hand her the email and her face registers shock. She looks up at you and says, "I didn’t send this!"

The advent of Web 2.0 has created a smorgasbord of new tools for those interesting in promoting workplace disrespect, damaging relationships, and destroying reputations. Cyber-bullying, sometimes referred to as cyber-harassment is a growing problem in today’s workplaces, and one that HR professionals should be equipped to deal with.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, cyber-bullying occurs "when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person." Wikipedia defines it as "when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through emails or text messages, or uses online forums and postings online intended to harm, damage, humiliate or isolate another person that they don’t like."

Like traditional workplace bullying, cyber-bullying is about power and control in workplace relationships. It is often motivated by insecurity, jealousy or fear. The intention of the perpetrator is the same: to undermine, discredit, embarrass and/or harm the target through sabotage, insults, undermining work performance, public humiliation, and sarcasm. The main difference is the use of technology to accomplish this goal.

And that technology can make quite a difference. As illustrated in the example above, cyber bullies can hide their actions under a cloak of anonymity and do far reaching damage with just one text, post or email message. They can reach their targets outside the workplace, in their homes, or cars through cellphones and PDA’s. They are able to block their numbers, use an alias, or access someone else’s email address so that a target may have no idea where the message is originating. A disgruntled employee can now choose to target his/her employer by anonymously posting damaging or even privileged information about the Company to social media site, blogs or chartrooms, rival companies or to traditional media.

Research shows that workplace bullying affects a significant number of employees, and is no longer an issue that employers, or HR business leaders, can afford to ignore. Cyber-bullying is one aspect of this growing problem that is costing employers billions of dollars. Productivity, teamwork and creativity are destroyed, while absenteeism, turnover and conflict increase.

Create Awareness, Establish a Policy

As with traditional bullying, the most important first step an employer can take to deal with cyber bullying is to create awareness about it in the workplace. Make sure that employees know what it is, how to recognize it, and what to do when they encounter it. Add clear language about bullying, including cyber-bullying to existing anti-harassment policies, and ensure that employees understand the consequences of engaging in this kind of disrespectful behavior. Establish an acceptable use policy (AUP) related to Internet technology. Make it a part of employee orientation to ensure that employees understand what it means and have them sign off on it.

One advantage in dealing with cyber-bullying over traditional bullying, which so often happens in private, is that it is occurring in a public domain. Emails, text messages, posts to blogs or social media sites can be saved to determine if the origin can be traced. Employers should work closely with their IT departments, to develop a strategy and techniques tocontrol and monitor what employees are doing online, which can include running reports on web access. Employees should be advised to create a safe sender list to block anonymous messages and to immediately report anything that breaches corporate Internet protocol.

Success in today’s challenging business climate requires adaptability and responsiveness to our new realities. Take proactive measures to make your workplace a "cyber-bullying free zone" and reap the possibilities offered by technology to promote respect and connectedness in your workplace.