Bullying: Virtual fighters

Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software that can remotely monitor a worker’s productivity. And while gadgets such as BlackBerries and mobile phones were developed with the aim of helping us become more efficient, it seems they can also be used as a means of abuse – providing an ‘in’ to our personal time and space from which there may seem to be no escape.

The rise of technology in the workplace has another unfortunate side effect: the potential for threatening behaviour between individuals.

This ‘cyber-bullying’ is something employers increasingly need to concern themselves with, and should bring their policies and procedures up to date. This should result in fewer complaints and, where incidents do occur, the ability to resolve them early before they significantly dent employee productivity.

Social networking

E-mail figures heavily in the vast majority of cases, but those involving social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace – with their audience of millions – cause perhaps the greatest humiliation and distress.

“With technology and the internet, it’s much easier and less constraining for the bully,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. “They don’t have to look at the other person and the technology is instant.”

According to the Andrea Adams Trust, the charity that campaigns against bullying in the workplace, any means of communication has the potential for bullying to occur.

“Unfortunately, it’s a natural human behaviour when individuals are forced into high-pressure situations,” says operations director Matt Witheridge. “The big thing with cyber-bullying, particularly e-mail, is it’s very hard to gauge tone, and a lot of confusion arises. We see that day in, day out.”

The argument that business should take bullying more seriously has never been stronger. More than 80% of workers say they have been bullied during their careers, according to a recent survey by the Samaritans. Meanwhile, brand new research from anti-bullying at work initiative Dignity at Work has calculated the total cost of bullying for UK organisations in 2007 to be about £13.75bn after taking into account absenteeism, staff turnover and loss of productivity related to the issue.

Siobhan Endean, project co-ordinator for Dignity at Work, says that although cyber-bullying is a new mechanism of bullying, the power relationships remain the same. It’s critical that employers take a zero-tolerance approach to the problem, whatever its form.

Clear policy

“Employers should have a clear policy that defines what bullying is and what cyber-bullying is as well, and states clearly that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable,” she advises. In Cooper’s view, many employers have not kept up with the changing times, so don’t even have policies on the use of new technologies and e-mail in general, much less for cyber-bullying.

Nationwide’s employee engagement manager, Darren Palmer, says building an anti-bullying policy and ensuring it is supported at all levels is an essential first step. “Given the speed of technological change, policies should make sure they clearly define all forms of unacceptable behaviour, including unacceptable conduct through distribution of unwanted e-mails, texts or images.” Employers should include both informal and formal routes to address complaints, he says.

Indeed, the early mediation approach works best, according to Endean. “Quite often it’s difficult to tackle bullying when it’s been left and people are off sick for a long time,” she says.

And the lawyers agree. Ellen Pinnell, partner at Capital Law and an accredited mediator, believes the aim of HR must be to catch bullying long before it gets to the point where formal mediation is required.

“Facilitation, which is not as formal as mediation, can be used, and larger organisations should consider training someone up,” she says. Trade unions will often question the impartiality of an internal facilitator, so an external facilitator may be a better option. Short of a tribunal, mediation can offer a more formal means of resolution that is confidential and may “end up settling things in a way a tribunal never could,” says Pinnell, citing a case in which the victim’s involvement in providing the company’s equal opportunities training was part of the settlement. “That’s something a tribunal would never be able to order.”

Access to training

Communication of guidelines around bullying and placing them into the context of emerging technologies is key, according to James Underhay, commercial director at HR consultancy Chiumento.

Line managers should also have access to training and development on how to deal with bullying. “HR professionals need to be the internal conscience of the organisation. Their role is about galvanising and driving corporate values.” In other words, instilling a positive culture that discourages bullying – indeed any negative behaviours – from developing in the first place.

The most prevalent form of cyber-bullying, via e-mail (see box, right), can leave a clear evidence trail for those investigating complaints. However, the anonymity afforded by most other new technologies makes policing cyber-bullying a real challenge, particularly in relation to postings on social networking sites. Some organisations may look to monitor employees’ use of the internet, says Witheridge, but if any personal information is being tracked or recorded, that could be infringing people’s civil liberties.

Some organisations may even choose to block access to these sites altogether. But for many employers, sites such as YouTube and Facebook can be an important tool in marketing and recruitment.

“Organisations need to decide what value is added by allowing access to these kinds of sites,” says Hester Jewitt, an employment lawyer at Manches. “If it’s not in your interest to block, ensure your policy reflects what your attitude to postings should be.

“New technologies need to be taken seriously because they pose a significant threat, particularly with new and younger staff coming into organisations who are very familiar with how to use them,” she adds.


E-mail is by far the most common method of cyber-bullying – a reflection of its predominance as the communication channel of choice in today’s workplace.

“Nine times out of 10, e-mail is involved,” says mediator Ellen Pinnell, a partner at Capital Law. Yet vague, out-of-date and ill-communicated policies in many organisa­tions, combined with lack of training for line managers, mean not all cyber-bullies are causing injury with explicit intent.

“It took a while for people to recognise that sending an unpleasant e-mail and copying in a number of people who didn’t need to be involved in that exchange was bullying,” she says.

Cary Cooper, from the University of Lancaster Management School, believes a culture of positive communication requires a high degree of person-to-person contact. “My belief is if you’re in the same building, go eyeball to eyeball wherever possible,” he says.

Pinnell adds that organisations must set clear guidelines for employees regarding how e-mail should be used.

“The test is, would you actually say to someone’s face what you’re putting in the e-mail, and where e-mail is sensitive and the topic is difficult, go back to it a couple of hours later before sending it,” she says.

“Constructive use of e-mail is as a written record to confirm what was discussed at a meeting, for example. There is a proper role for e-mail, but it must not cross the line into intimidating people,” Pinnel adds.

Given that tribunals and courts are increasingly ordering the disclosure of e-mails, she warns that “people should think twice before writing a vile e-mail they wouldn’t be able to explain”.

The legal challenges

The legal stance regarding cyber-bullying is essentially the same as for face-to-face bullying, meaning there is no one piece of legislation that makes it unlawful.

The result, says Siobhan Endean, project co-ordinator for anti-bullying lobby Dignity at Work, is a “gap in the legislation”, which, in most cases, leaves constructive dismissal as the only remedy.

“This is completely inadequate for most people, who really just want to be back at work and have the issue resolved,” she says.

Some forms of cyber-bullying, however, do raise particular legal concerns for employers, underscoring the need for robust policies on the issue so as to limit their liability. Cases involving the use of BlackBerries and mobile phones issued by a company without clear guidelines on appropriate use could leave the employer liable.

“If you’re looking at a cyber-bullying situation that involves a manager and their employee, I think BlackBerries do take on a new dimension because you take them home, they’re with you every day,” says Hester Jewitt, an employment lawyer at Manches.

Many new technologies, whether e-mail, text or, in some cases, internet sites, afford anonymity to perpetrators, which could lead to a greater risk of anxiety and distress on the part of the victim because they don’t know who the bully is, says Jewitt. At the same time, abusive postings on social networking sites could result in greater injury to feeling because they are in the public domain.

The key to limiting employer liability is simple, however. “Make it clear through policies and procedures what kind of behaviour is acceptable, and ensure they are adhered to,” advises Jewitt.

Bullying using e-mails or the internet is the most silent form of office threat, but could be a trend that makes a big noise in lawsuits to come.

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