Online trolling has soared during the pandemic. Employers can be held liable for workers who harass or discriminate against others online, so how should they approach these issues at work? Ben Thompson offers some advice.
The pandemic has been blamed for an increase in online trolling and harassment, even hitting the levels of “zoombombing”, where hackers gatecrash a video meeting to share violent, explicit or offensive content.
But what happens if an employer discovers one of their staff has been found cyberbullying someone? While the individual themselves could be handed a short prison sentence or a £5,000 fine, employers can also be handed a fine if they are made aware of their staff’s actions and don’t undertake the correct measures to discipline, or remove the troll from the company.
Advice on employer liability from the Equality and Human Rights Commission instructs that as an employer an organisation is “legally responsible for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by employees in the course of employment”, regardless of whether they knew about or approve of those acts.
Coupled with the knowledge that trolling can cause extreme emotional and mental impact, if an organisation finds itself with a troll on the books, it can affect its reputation as an employer and a public brand.
For example if a public-facing spokesperson is found to be making toxic statements online, employees and customers may believe that these represent the opinion of the business as a whole.
You may already have a social media policy in place, so ensure it covers online harassment. Rather than waiting for a social media disaster to happen, it makes sense to get ahead by distributing a social media code of conduct.
This should include:
- Details of who can use the company’s official social media accounts
- Reminder that confidential information about the company on social media is prohibited
- Posting defamatory comments about the company on public social media channels is prohibited
- Advice that employees should be considerate and respectful on their social media
- Consider adding “All my opinions are my own” or “My opinions are not representative of my [employer]” to social media bios
- The repercussions if an employee is found to have breached the policy
- Information on how a staff member can make a report if they see something concerning online from a team member or the public.
Investigate the matter
If it’s been brought to your attention that an incident has happened online, you need to take the time to investigate the matter. Fake accounts can be made, words can be taken out of context and tones can be misread.
Find the evidence of what has occurred and keep a record of it. Investigate whether this is a trend of trolling or a single case from the employee. Once you have the evidence that you need, organise a meeting with the employee.
In the meeting request, be clear about what the meeting will address, including details of the incident and potential disciplinary action. Give the employee sufficient time to get organised (at least 24 hours) so they can prepare anything they need for the meeting.
In the meeting, follow a structured procedure. Explain the allegations against the person, how they have impacted staff, the company or members of the public, and what your proposed disciplinary action is.
Be sure to lay out all evidence gained in your investigation of the matter. After you’ve finished speaking, allow time for the employee to respond to the matter. They may wish to do this during the meeting or in a written document following the meeting.
The best case scenario is to address harassment behaviours early. A minor case of trolling – perhaps some rude or crude comments that were not intended to cause major harm – could mean you give your employee a formal warning and move on.
In a more serious case, such as a string of online trolling that included targeted aggression or violent threats, could lead to the dismissal of the employee. However, consult with an employment lawyer before you make your decision so you can be sure you are not risking unfair dismissal.
Although it’s crucial to take all matters of trolling seriously, use your discretion in giving a penalty that is proportionate to the employee’s actions.
Online harassment is sadly part of life on the internet. The best advice you can give to employees for dealing with this is “don’t feed the trolls”, as the more someone responds, the more satisfaction they get from the chaos they cause.
Advise employees not to get into an argument with harassers and not to acknowledge such comments, because this will lead them to lose interest and move on to a more reactive target. In the workplace, we need to take a slightly different approach.
Most importantly, leaders need to acknowledge the behaviour and take action to make it clear that aggression and bullying are not traits that will be tolerated in the workplace.