The Problem of Bullying and Cyber Bullying in the Workplace

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by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist and Organisational Consultant, Perth, Western Australia

Copyright 2011

The issue of workplace bullying recently gained prominence in business circles with a $9 million claim made by a former Pacific Brands Divisional Head, who has become embroiled in a legal dispute centred around allegations of bullying by elements within Pacific Brand. The recent David Jones case against Mark McInnes by a female employee which related to alleged sexual harassment was a related case which brought negative attention to the company and the David Jones brand.

Workplaces are being confronted with increasing claims of bullying according to Industrial Relations tribunal statistics in Australia. It is surprising to note that in Australia there is no common definition nor statute law covering bullying or related cyber-bullying.

In terms of the law one finds that certain types of bullying behaviours such as stalking, assault, threats etc may be covered by other actual statutes and laws that relate to the immediate type of activity. In general one finds that bullying is covered under the implied conditions that a workplace should be a safe environment for the staff involved at that workplace. Occupational Health and Safety Laws provide some guidance in this area.

In a typical workplace today one routinely finds workplace policies for internet and email usage, harassment, racism, and discrimination policies. These policies also cover workers from bullying and cyber-bullying that could occur using those themes and mediums covered by those policies. It is less common to find actual Bullying and Cyber-bullying policies but these too are now emerging to define and inform for workers what is and is not condoned in the workplace with respect to interpersonal behaviours between staff.

What is important is that employers must take the issue of workplace bullying seriously. The documented effects of bullying on the victim and the bully are quite pervasive and potentially far-reaching. Victims have been shown to often suffer trauma that equates to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and may have associated Anxiety, Depression, Psycho-somatic illnesses, and psychological disorders including impulses to suicide.

The bully often has a pattern of controlling, intimidatory and anti-social behaviours in their history and will normally found to have low self-esteem and poor self and body images. Research shows that adult bullies were often schoolyard bullies or were themselves bullied in school years.

Bullying has also been shown to be intergenerational where a parent, often the father, created a negative role model for the children by their own bullying personality, and then in turn at least one of their children identified with, and became a bully in the father’s image. Narcissistic personalities also show bullying as both a tactic and technique of control and imposing their power over others both in workplaces and in social settings.

Regardless of whether the bully may have been bullied themselves in their past, or is some other choice or personality trait, the bullying behaviours are often either an attempt to overcome their felt sense of powerlessness in life, or their mal-adapted way of social engagement. Bullies are often depressed, anxious, confused and may also exhibit physical and mental health issues and symptoms.

The employer suffers from the fact that their workplace becomes unsafe and less cohesive in the face of the bullying behaviours. Studies have shown how productivity drops, absenteeism rises, staff turnover increases, and morale slumps over time if the issue is not confronted and dealt with.

Remember that bullies typically have low self esteem and feel powerless. They typically compensate by trying to move higher through the workplace ladder and get placed in positions of power and control, which legitimises their need to use this authority in a dysfunctional way. Power is a blunt tool of control.

The employer also suffers as increasingly staff are seeking recourse to the law to fight workplace bullying when employers are seen to ignore, or dismiss bullying by their staff against another colleague. As an example, Worksafe W.A. defines workplace bullying in quite broad terms. It is described as: “repeated unreasonable or inappropriate behavior directed towards a worker, or group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety”.

The Workplace perspective orients itself towards the potential adverse effects on the workplace health and safety for staff and subcontractors or agents of the business.

Employers need to understand that if they turn a blind eye, or minimize or dismiss instances of workplace bullying then they run the risk of incurring expensive litigation costs in various courts and tribunals that an affected staff member may take legal action through.

Workplace bullying has grown over time to include the use of internet and communications technologies to harass, humiliate, and psychologically assault other employees and their families. Emerging technologies and increased reliance on digital communication in the workplace gives rise to the opportunity for instances of Cyber-bullying by employees.

More importantly employers now need to understand and enact workplace policies that describe and guide employee behaviours around Cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying is a serious topic because its effects on the psychological health of victims is more far reaching, lasting and damaging that the traditional physical bully.

Cyber-Bullying is a new concern as the tools and nature of the internet mean that any content, once transmitted and posted, can never be guaranteed to be fully erasable, deleted or removed. A rule of thumb is that what is put on the internet remains there forever.

In the past a victim of physical bullying ceased being bullied once removed from the presence of the bully. Although harmful there was limits to the effect and reach of bullying via physical avoidance or absence of presence. The audience of bullying was often small in a physical bullying scenario and so the shaming component was limited.

The nature and problem of Cyber-bullying is that one is potentially exposed for eternity to a worldwide audience when one is subject to malicious comments, rumours, shaming, exposure or attack on the internet, particularly when conducted on social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube.

The Internet security firm AVG, researched this emerging problem and presented their finds at the 2011 American Psychological Association annual convention. AVG concluded that:

  • Victims of cyber-bullying and the related phenomena of cyber-stalking, suffer more than victims of “traditional” bullying.
  • The inability to escape from the 24 x 7 online world, coupled with the public nature of threats and humiliation resulting from posts on the internet, made electronic bullying more intense.
  • 4 out of 10 women suffered electronic harassment after dating using online dating sites.
  • 20% of prosecuted online stalkers used social media and social networking sites as part of their modus operandi to stalk victims.
  • Online bullying and stalking is under-reported and likely to increase as more people become social media “savvy”.

Psychological studies are showing how a class of people with anti-social mental disorders, and other people who feel confronted with physical interaction, are starting to live “virtually”, or increasingly locked away from true social interaction, in front of computers and mobile devices.

A generation is now emerging who have been raised on these devices and technologies. Neuroscience has shown how the internet and social media experiences such as Facebook interactions are highly addictive for some people. I cover this point in my September 2011 Energetics Institute Newsletter.

As a consequence of the damaged nature of some individuals in their personal histories, plus the explosive trend of the internet as a replacement or compensation for social engagement, a general social trend is emerging for remote interactions and connections that transcends workplace boundaries. This does not lift the burden of responsibility away from the employer.

An employer can be found responsible for the online practices done through the workplace supplied internet and social media enabled technologies and devices. Likewise the internet becomes the new “cyber-playground” where the bully can show up and torment others. Employers are not outside their duty of care to employees when one employee bullies or abuses another through one of the many gateways into the online world.

Employers need to be pro-active and amend or introduce updated workplace policies that provide a cohesive and linked framework of guidance, education, definition, and policy or rules that proscribe and set boundaries around personal and online presence and behavior.

Whilst an employer cannot directly control the actions of their employee they can certainly articulate the physical, behavioural, cultural, online and value driven standards, rules and mores that are expected of all that would work under the banner of that workplace.

Employers that continue to omit or neglect to introduce or update doing so are increasingly running the risk of ending up in a litigation linked outcome that can only result in the risk of heavy cost, and damage to the reputation of that business.

The issue is that there is crossover from some of the older forms of physical bullying into Cyber-bullying as technology enables these negative practices with devastating effects. For instance online technologies can become a carrier for previously face-to-face behaviours such as spreading gossip about a co-worker.

Online technologies allow any information to be shared instantly across the web to a large audience or even to people outside the organisation. Rumours posted on the internet about a co-worker can seriously affect their reputation and future career. Anybody can post a rumour and once something is on the internet it is very hard to remove or dispute. Cyber-bullying can have many forms under this medium.

Online technologies operate 24 hours, 7 days a week. Cyber-bullying doesn’t just happen during work hours. The increased prevalence of take-home laptops and portable communications devices such as BlackBerries and iPhones make cyber-bullying a problem outside of the physical work environment and traditional working hours.

Employees need to understand that their conduct on such online technologies is accountable 24 hours, 7 days a week, especially when it relates to their own conduct, and their interaction with other employees at any time. Employers need policies and education of their staff to alert them of their responsibilities when using these workplace oriented technologies.

Covert bullying can be understood as any form of aggressive behaviour that is repeated, intended to cause harm, characterised by an imbalance of power and is hidden from, or unacknowledged by, the leadership and managers of the organisation. It can include the spreading of rumours or attempts at socially excluding others.

One can see the crossover effect from typical workplace physical bullying to the Cyber-bullying if one considers what we define as physical bullying. Physical bullying includes such practices as:

  • Inappropriate comments about another person’s appearance or lifestyle choices;
  • Abusive, insulting, threatening or offensive language;
  • Physical or verbal behavior that frightens, traumatizes, shames, humiliates, belittles or degrades another person(s);
  • Passive aggressive teasing, joking, and the making the other person(s) the target or brunt of pranks, jokes, and “fun” scenarios;
  • Interfering with another person(s) personal effects, workstation, work equipment or environments;
  • Physical or verbal assaults or threats;
  • Initiation rituals or processes which are harmful, shaming, offensive, or which intimidate;
  • Spreading false information, rumours, gossip, about a person(s) which are intended or do cause harm and injury to person(s), their reputation or which constitute character assassination.

Physical bullying can also span covert bullying practices such as:

  • Creating stress or job dissatisfaction via setting tasks constantly that are below or beyond a person’s skill level;
  • Overloading or underloading a person with work tasks;
  • Constantly changing deadlines, success criteria, instructions or work process/directions;
  • Setting unrealistic task deadlines;
  • Setting no or unrealistic break or lunchtimes;
  • Ignoring a person in meetings, teams, or as an individual;
  • Isolating a person from their team, the rest of the workforce, or in an unsafe or inappropriate workplace setting;
  • Withholding or denying information and resources needed for the person(s) to properly perform their job role;
  • Preventing access or preventing the lodging of complaints or communications to others or superiors;
  • Discrimination in terms of allowed workplace entitlements such as sick leave, annual leave, training, social functions, or authorized workplace functions.

Cyber bullying is often defined as a form of covert bullying and is carried out through the use of technology; for example, on the internet through emails, blogs and social networking sites, as well as via mobile phones. Some of the physical forms of bullying, such as transmission of rumours or gossip, crossover well into the Cyber-bullying category.

The problem with the use of online technologies is they are perfect camouflage for employing the hidden nature of covert and cyber bullying practices.  This makes them difficult for the organisation to prevent or stop and perhaps, as a consequence, employees are not informed that they have rights to prevent such online bullying incidents.

This is particularly concerning, given the potential legal consequences as well as the ongoing social and psychological issues that can result for both employees who have been bullied and those who engage in bullying behaviour. Many employees are unaware as to what constitutes Cyber-bullying. Examples of Cyber-bullying include:

  • Malicious or threatening emails or SMS communications to an individual’s phone or email address;
  • Electronic communications that feature offensive content such as explicit images or jokes/comments about ethnicity, religion or sexual preference;
  • Electronic communications aimed at correcting or providing feedback to an individual that are copied to a group with the effect of publicly shaming or demeaning the individual;
  • Malicious or threatening comments about an individual posted on blogs or social networking sites;
  • Sharing embarrassing, offensive or manipulated images or videos of an individual; and
  • Screen savers or desktop backgrounds featuring offensive content.

Although Cyber-bullying shares many similarities with more traditional methods of bullying, it has the potential to be more aggressive and escalate a lot faster. The anonymity, large audience, range of attack methods, lack of face-to-face communication and ability to contact the victim 24 hours a day contribute to the severity of Cyber-bullying.

It is important that employers recognise that addressing Cyber-bullying is essential for creating a safe and productive working environment. In general, the significance of Cyber-bullying is underestimated and consequentially is not prioritised as an issue requiring attention.

Many employers don’t take it seriously, especially when the technology being used is poorly understood. Issues that appear to be trivial or based on a personal gripe can have a devastating impact in the workplace. Employers and Employees who recognise this and actively seek to prevent it will be much better placed to avoid the negative consequences of Cyber-bullying incidents.

Bullying and Cyber-bullying can seriously affect morale, cause undue fear and stress, emotional exhaustion and serious health and psychological issues. This can result in lost productivity, increase in staff absence and difficulty retaining staff in an unhealthy work environment. Employees and employers have a Duty of Care towards each other with respect to  with the sensitive personal and political issues, especially when technology like email, instant messaging and social networking is involved.

The best way to prevent Cyber-bullying is through a combination of policy and education. Given there is no common or uniform legal definition of Cyber-Bullying then the first place to start is to consider that such behavior is a subset of harassment and bullying.

Harassment and bullying means subjecting another person to behaviour that is hurtful, threatening or frightening. It means treating others with a lack of respect. Cyber-bullying takes many forms. It may include:

  • On Line Harassment: repeatedly sending offensive messages and/or the posting of racist, nasty and hurtful comments using electronic means;
  • Cyberstalking: online harassment that can include repeated threats of harm/intimidation or continual inappropriate comments;
  • Masquerading: pretending to be someone else on a site and/or posting material that makes another person look as if they are participating in cyber-bullying;
  • Identity theft, especially where the theft is used to create actions and behaviours under the guise of the stolen identity that will or be anticipated to create negative consequences for the real person of that stolen identity;
  • Outing: sending or posting material that is sensitive or embarrassing including forwarding private messages or images;
  • Exclusion: deliberately excluding another from an online group, mailing list or text/chat/MSN type conversation.

Cyber-bullying can occur using any internet or online technology or enabling medium.   There is no definitive list of sites or applications given the fluid and ever changing nature of the internet over time. Employers would be prudent to alert employees of key applications and sites under which Cyber-bullying may occur but note the list is neither exhaustive or exclusive.

The organization needs to understand that Cyber-bullying is more likely to occur on or via email, personal websites, chat rooms, social networking sites such as MySpace/Facebook, video uploading sites such as YouTube, blogs, wikis, SMS, MSN, forums, and may involve devices such as computers, webcams and phones.

Whilst Cyber-bullying may occur using a company supplied device or service, or an individual’s personal equipment, telecommunications provider or Internet Service Provider, its effect can still impinge on the employee and employer. Employers will need to have been seen to act with a response or intervention strategy even if the bullying occurs outside an organization’s immediate jurisdiction.

Employers will need to clarify and set boundaries around use of company resources. The use of one’s work computer network, internet access facilities, computers, mobile phone and other equipment/devices on or off workplaces or worksites may need to be proscribed and limited to purposes appropriate to the context of engaging in work practices proscribed by the company and its management.

The use of any privately owned or leased ICT equipment/devices on company sites, or at any company workplace or worksite, or related activity must be described as appropriate to the workplace environment.

The use of any privately owned ICT/technological devices outside a workplace or worksites should be appropriate and should be mindful of both the moral and legal requirements relating to bullying and harassment policies not just at the company, but generally under State and Federal laws of Australia.

Cyber-bullying and online stalking is illegal and can result in criminal charges under various provisions and statutes of State and Federal law within Australia. Organisations are generally expected under law to liaise with policing bodies to understand whether it is prudent to prosecute employees, subcontractors or agents who contravene any laws that exist with respect to Bullying, Harassment and Cyber-bullying.

There is anecdotal evidence that some employees have attempted to use claims of bullying and cyber-bullying in workplace dismissal cases, and in related lawsuits.  There is now legal precedence reported in Australian Law journals that note that for bullying to occur there must be repeated occurrences and not just a single event.

Also if a manager is counseling an employee for general underperformance then that would not normally constitute bullying as generally a manager can provide feedback and give directives to an employee regarding their performance, or in the ordinary course of that type of business.

Likewise an employer cannot just dismiss either an alleged bully or their victim as a way of just ridding themselves of the problem. Procedural fairness dictates that one cannot simply either ignore nor blindly accept any claim of a nature that would lead to dismissal. The whole area dictates employers have good legal counsel on hand to guide them in any such issues, and that their H.R. be across whatever policies and processes are required to be followed.

The problems of both bullying and cyber-bullying are expected to increase over time. In Australia the nationwide rollout of computers and technology in schools, coupled with the funded rollout of the National Broadband infrastructure project, will both educate bullies and bring opportunities to bear where cyber-bullying could occur.

Organisations need to remain abreast of this set of issues and retaining good legal counsel is recommended as the best place to start.  In addition having workplace coaching, counseling and education services in place is a good second step to employ. A proactive stance can save time, money, personnel, and limit psychological damage to employees within the organization.

Australian Case law has demonstrated that an employer’s common law duty of care to employees encompasses not just their physical wellbeing but extends to their psychological mental and emotional wellbeing as well. Employers are familiar with the concept of retaining legal counsel for legal issues but are less open to retaining psychological or counseling support services except in a reactive fashion for where an issue exists or occurs, and Employee Assistance Programmes are auctioned retrospectively for such scenarios.

An employer who takes a proactive approach of dealing with personalities, providing training and education, clear policies, and available counseling support, is better able to demonstrate that they have taken steps to prevent inappropriate behavior or bullying, and to have acted promptly when such instances have arisen. This is a good risk and legal mitigation factor to have on your side as an employer.

Corporate Energetics regularly consults with employers on the matters of workplace bullying and cyber-bullying, as well as running our “Standing Tall” Anti-Bullying/Cyber-Bullying programme”, in a way that assists in the prevention and mitigation of the risk of workplace bullying.

Feel free to contact us to find out more how he can help you to proactively introduce relevant email, internet, harassment, racism, bullying and cyber-bullying workplace policies, or Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to assist staff who have alleged bullying in the workplace.

Richard also personally assists and provides coaching to managers, supervisors and executives in the workplace who find they have bullying tendencies in their personality that are getting in the way of discharging their leadership roles to optimum success.

Tel: +61-8-93702341

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