Most HR professionals know how to handle a case of face-to-face bullying. But cyberbullying – which takes place online, mostly via social media – is becoming a worrying trend. Even more of a concern is a lack of awareness among companies about its prevalence and risks, and how to tackle it in the workplace.
Statistics published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2012 suggest that cyberbullying has become as common as ‘conventional’ bullying in the workplace. It found that 8 out of 10 workers had experienced at least one instance of it in the six months before the survey, and between 14 and 20 per cent of workers said they experienced it on a weekly basis.
Although there has been little academic research on the subject, it is safe to say it is a very real modern-day problem – one that can significantly affect both employees’ performance and their mental wellbeing.
Dr Samuel J Farley, professor at the department of psychology at the University of Sheffield, says studies have suggested that cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying have a similar impact, with cyberbullying linked to job dissatisfaction, mental strain and emotional exhaustion. “However, one of the characteristics that differentiates cyberbullying from face-to-face workplace bullying is that it can occur at anytime, which means it can pose a greater threat to people’s home lives,” he says.
“A qualitative study led by Premilla D'Cruz found that victims felt trapped as bullies could reach them anywhere. This means there is little opportunity for victims to recover from the demands of work.”
Organisations need to be proactive in tackling cases of cyberbullying as they occur. “The fact it’s being done online doesn’t change the nature of the behaviour, whether it’s verbal bullying from a manager to a junior employee or whether it’s done online, it’s the same thing and should be dealt with in the same manner,” says Linda Farrell, partner at law firm Bristows.
Employers also need to be aware they may be vicariously liable for the acts of their employees. “The law says anything that is done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as being done by the employer, regardless of whether the acts were done with the employer’s knowledge or approval,” explains Farrell.
She stresses the importance of having a social media policy in place – in addition to a bullying and harassment policy: “There is a defence available to the employer if it can show that it took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent the employee from harassing or bullying someone. This would generally include having a well-drafted policy, training staff on its application and ensuring that all staff are aware of it.” It’s no good just sticking it in a handbook when employee joins an organisation, or putting it on the intranet – you have to tell employees about it, she adds.
On being made aware of an allegation of cyberbullying, employers need to carry out a proper investigation into the matter, says Farrell. This is likely to involve gathering evidence and may extend to monitoring employees. But this is where employers must tread carefully, warns Rachel Allan, an associate at Bristows: “Employees are entitled to a degree of privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention. How it’s interpreted will depend on whether the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the communication in question, and whether the interference by the employer in monitoring that was proportionate and in accordance with the law.” Put simply, the question is: has the employee been made aware that they may be monitored?
The general advice is to use the least intrusive form of monitoring possible. Any monitoring of employees is likely to engage the Data Protection Act 1998, so employers should take specific advice when determining the scope of an investigation, adds Allan.
A report should then be compiled and sent to a line manager or to the HR team to deal with. If the matter is relatively minor, it may be dealt with informally – but if it’s serious it must be dealt with in the proper manner, and can result in immediate dismissal, says Farrell.
While an employee bullying someone within work hours is obviously of grave concern to the employer, organisations may also want to act if the cyberbullying happens outside of working hours – especially if it might negatively impact on the company’s reputation.
While it doesn’t fit the usual context of cyberbullying, the recent case of Angela Gibbins from the British Council and her comments about Prince George demonstrates that an organisation’s reputation may be jeopardised by an employee’s posts on social media – even if they are from a personal account.
Ultimately the message employers need to get across is that “it’s not the case that anything goes when using Facebook or Twitter”, says Farrell. “The same real-world behaviour standards apply to the online world.”
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