Cyberbullies Lurking in the Workplace
Cyberbullying isn't a torment endured only by children, as a new study in the United Kingdom finds that picking on colleagues via email and social-networking sites is common in the workplace, too.
By Larry Keller
Researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom have released results of three separate surveys of employees questioned at several universities which find that about 80 percent of the 320 respondents said they had experienced work-related cyberbullying at least once in the previous six months, and 14 to 20 percent of them said this happened to them at least once a week.
The findings have serious implications for HR professionals. Cyberbullying can result in lower employee morale, higher turnover and absenteeism, and damage to a company's reputation if the practice is visible to a vast audience on the Internet, the researchers say. It also raises questions as to whether existing HR policies adequately address the behavior.
"A key issue . . . is to raise awareness of the impact of cyberbehavior -- to prevent it [from] happening -- or escalating," says Carolyn Axtell, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield's Institute of Work Psychology and one of the authors of the study. "Due to the lack of social and physical cues online, people are less aware, and therefore less considerate about the other person's reaction. Organizations could . . . set norms and expectations about online behavior -- what is considered acceptable and what isn't."
Many do not, however. New York-based Proskauer recently released its second annual worldwide survey of social media in the workplace and found that 69 percent of nearly 250 multinational businesses had social-media policies, but only one-third of them provided training in the appropriate use of social media. The survey didn't address how many of those social-media policies specifically include cyberbullying.
"Businesses are grappling with a medium that encourages informal and irreverent communications that are essentially permanent and have the potential to spread like wildfire," the report states.
But workplace cyberbullying hasn't been a hot topic among Society for Human Resource Management members who call the organization's Knowledge Center for advice, says Margaret Fiester, the center's operations manager.
"It doesn't seem to be on people's radar here," she says.
Still, Fiester isn't surprised at the findings in the British study. "It's a variation of the whole bullying thing. We're seeing an increase in general bullying, and courtesy and conduct policies," she says. "We do receive a number of questions about [workplace] bullying in general." Those questions deal with conduct that includes threats, calling a colleague out in a meeting and ignoring them, she adds.
"The problem isn't new. The way it's communicated is," says Tim Garnett, managing shareholder in the St. Louis office of law firm Ogletree Deakins. "The difference is your audience is often wider."
Bennet Alsher, a partner with FordHarrison, an Atlanta-based labor and employment law firm, says employers can incorporate cyberbullying in their social-media policies -- if they have one -- and have a separate harassment policy that references the social-media rules. Social-media complaints are tricky, however, as employers have to be responsive to employee complaints while also being careful not to violate their privacy rights, he says.
"It's really quite a conundrum for employers," he adds.
Overly broad language in a social media policy can put it at odds with the National Labor Relations Act, Alsher warns. But, doing nothing is not an option, because employers are required to promptly and effectively respond to harassing behavior.
The British researchers gave respondents a list of what can be classified as bullying -- being humiliated, ignored or gossiped about -- and asked if they had faced such behavior online, and how often. They concede that the study may have a slight bias because people most inclined to respond may have been those who had experienced cyberbullying.
A majority of respondents in each of the surveys were women -- from 60 percent to 75 percent. Gender didn't seem to play a role in the responses, Axtell says. "It could just be the case that women are more likely to answer surveys of this type."
The researchers contend that some employees may feel free to engage in cyberbullying because they feel less inhibited online, they don't see the impact of their actions and there may be no controls to stop them from what they're doing.
Bullying is similar to harassment, but often isn't directed at protected classes such as age, race and gender, says Garnett, who leads 30 to 50 webcasts a year on workplace harassment, including bullying in all forms. He's unconvinced that employers need a policy on bullying. "Civility in the workplace is expected," he says.
Fiester thinks it's a good idea for HR managers to include cyberbullying in their personnel policies. She says it can be included in general rules governing employee conduct.
HR managers need to know that, in some cases, employers can take action against employees who use social media away from their job to bully a co-worker, Alsher says. If the offensive comments migrate into the workplace, the employer has a legitimate interest in taking action, he says. This is especially true if the offending employee is a manager, because he "stands in the employer's shoes."
Garnett adds, "It's when there's an impact in the workplace that an employer has a right to step in. The key word is impact."
There is agreement that HR executives should have an employee education and awareness program explaining what sorts of social media communications are inappropriate, and proceed carefully when they receive a cyberbullying complaint.
"I think the key is to start out with an effective, well-crafted social media policy," Alsher says. "Evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis. Get the facts. Do your due diligence. Don't rush to judgment. Get legal advice."
Garnett teaches that there are three levels of bullying from least serious to most severe. "Take a measured approach," he advises. "The punishment needs to fit the crime."
Axtell, the British researcher, offers this bit of advice: "Simply getting people to do a final check of their message before hitting 'send' could also help to get people to think about the impact of what they are sending.
"Encouraging people to actually talk to each other to sort out any disagreements or misunderstandings rather than just relying on online messages and emails can also help to diffuse a situation and enhance mutual understanding."