Last reviewed 10 October 2016

Work-related cyberbullying is on the increase and, with the continued use of digital communication, it is becoming harder to control. Beverly Coleman looks at ways to reduce the risk to employees.

Just under half of the world’s population (7.4 billion) has an internet connection: approximately 3.4 billion of us. Compared to the less than 1% of the world’s population that had access in 1995, this is truly phenomenal. As recently as May 2016, the Office for National Statistics reported that an estimated 87.9% of adults in the UK — a whopping 45.9 million people — had (within the three months of the report’s publication) used the internet. Information technology is a firm fixture in the workplace. Part of its beauty is the ability to make things so much easier, especially communication.

However, many office-based workers have been the recipients of an email from a colleague sitting within arm’s reach containing a message that would have been easier to verbalise face to face than going through the palaver of opening a new email, selecting the recipient, typing the message and clicking send. According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), 68% of employees would rather phone or email their colleagues as opposed to speak to them in person.

While it is a fact that the workplace relies heavily on information technology, this can lead to negative outcomes, one of which is workplace cyberbullying. This is on the increase.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is any form of bullying, harassment and victimisation using electronic means. This can be through emails and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cyberbullying can include the sending of malicious or threatening messages, sharing inappropriate photographs, making derogatory comments about the quality of someone’s work, sharing someone’s personal information without consent (ranging from a home telephone number to the fact that a married colleague had an affair), sending inappropriate photographs and online stalking. It can also include implied threats, ie if a manager is emailing through more work than an employee can get through stating that is part of his or her job (the implication being that if the employee can’t do the job he or she may lose it), while other employees are not treated in the same way.

Who does it affect?

Anyone can be a target of cyberbullying and the perpetrator(s) can be within the workplace or outside of it.

Fast becoming as common as conventional workplace bullying and harassment, cyberbullying differs in its ability to be continuous, occurring at any time or place while the victim is using a computer or mobile device. Negative online posts have the potential to reach vast numbers of people in seconds, attract further abusive commentary and can be shared multiple times through a variety of platforms. All of these factors heighten the risk to employees who suffer this type of bullying.

What are the effects?

As with face-to-face bullying, victims can suffer from depression, anxiety, humiliation, anger, fear and frustration. Employees experiencing cyberbullying can be distracted and demotivated, which will obviously have a negative impact on their performance. Any form of bullying can compromise a worker’s wellbeing and mental health.

Internal and external cyberbullying

Perpetrators can be fellow colleagues within an organisation or those outside the working environment — customers, clients and services users.

Within the workplace, cyberbullying often takes place through emails, mobile phone texts or internal communication platforms such as instant messaging systems, and can consist of offensive and threatening content, constantly bombarding the victim with messages demanding work unreasonably, or discrediting or mocking a worker’s efforts and abilities. Worryingly, there may be more than one internal perpetrator.

Using work email accounts and social media platforms to communicate with customers and clients on a one-to-one basis has opened the door to employees being targeted by external bullies. All it takes is a disgruntled customer or client to search for and find the online profile of the employee to begin a campaign of abuse. Perpetrators can set up profiles that offer them anonymity, making it difficult for authorities to locate them, which in turn means the bullying can be prolonged.

The law

Although cyberbullying is not legally recognised in the UK, there are laws under which perpetrators can be prosecuted. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 states that it is a criminal offence to send a message of “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it an offence to send an indecent, grossly offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person with the intention that it should cause them distress or anxiety, and the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to, with the intent to cause harassment, alarm and distress, use threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour, writing, signs or other visual representation within the sight or hearing of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

What can employers do?

It is important that organisations are proactive when it comes to cyberbullying. Although it is relatively new, it is fast becoming a real modern-day problem and, under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, all employers must ensure employees work in a safe and healthy environment. This includes protecting them from bullying and harassment. Failure to act in a situation where an employee is being cyberbullied by a colleague can lead to employers being found vicariously liable.

A starting point is to update existing workplace bullying and harassment policies to include cyberbullying. Then, if the organisation doesn’t have one already, to establish a social media policy that focuses on how platforms should be used for work purposes. It is worth widening the policy to cover cyberbullying outside the workplace.

Policies should state clearly that all forms of bullying will not be tolerated, have a clear definition of what cyberbullying is, what measures are to be taken (preventive, disciplinary and legal), the responsibilities of those in managerial and supervisory positions, the involvement of trade union representatives where applicable, and details of those to whom victims can report the bullying: employee representatives, HR personnel or external counsellors through employee assistance programs. This is especially important because it may not always be possible to speak to one’s manager as he or she may be the perpetrator. If the organisation wants the option to check emails and social networking sites, it must make employees aware of this. However such monitoring should be done only if a problem is reported or suspected, otherwise it may be an unjustifiable intrusion into people’s private lives.

While it is paramount that all employees are aware of the policies, it is of equal importance that they are trained on how to keep safe online, identify when communication is crossing the line and how incidents can be reported. Internal campaigns are a great way of highlighting the issue as well as letting employees know that cyberbullying is on the organisation’s radar.

Any policy should be regularly reviewed and updated to keep pace with technological advances.

What can employees do?

There are steps that can be taken by those who suffer abuse either at the hands of fellow colleagues or external customers and clients. For internal cases, where possible raise the issue with the offender directly — in some cases he or she may not be aware that the behaviour is offensive and, even if he or she is aware, challenging him or her may be enough deterrent. If this fails, speak to a manager or colleague (if no specific contact is identified in the company policy). Keep any offending messages and emails as they may be needed as evidence.

If bullying is by text or via social media apps, consider blocking the perpetrator. If the organisation has an IT department, staff there can help to block certain email addresses, or set up a new one. For external cases and to keep safe online, immediately inform the organisation, adjust privacy settings on social media accounts so that those outside of your social circle cannot gain access to your online profile, keep personal information on a high privacy setting and consider switching off GPS on your mobile devices so that locations are not shared. Be selective with those who request online friendship. Lastly, try not to retaliate: it can escalate the matter further.