When the first vicious text came, “Janet” deleted it. When a second and third followed, she texted back, “You’ve got the wrong number.” Then, an avalanche of nasty text messages choked her SMS inbox.
Janet wanted to call HR but hesitated, fearing HR or her company’s management might wonder if she’d done even a handful of what the texts accused her of doing.
Rattled, she took a break and opened her Facebook account, only to find dozens of defaming messages. What if her friends believed these? She planned to email one of her friends, an IT guy, for help. When she opened her personal email account, she discovered that whoever was trolling her had found that account too.
What has led to the escalation in workplace cyberbullying?
Now that many employees work remotely, workplace cyberbullying in the form of insults, threats, attacking comments on work group emails, harassment and other verbal abuse has escalated. Pandemic-related economic and financial destabilization, our nation’s increasing polarization and widely broadcast incidences of violence, and the prevalence of bullying at high levels in government and corporations all appear to propel cyberbullies forward. The payroll services company Paychex reports that 44% of employees have received disciplinary action due to their problematic behavior while working remotely. Workplace bullying itself “has seen an uptick.”
What makes cyberbullying different?
Unlike other workplace bullying, in which the target can escape the bullying at 5 p.m., cyberbullying invades the target’s home. Cyberbullying researchers characterize this as “being ‘haunted’ — as if the bully is a ghost, drifting behind the victim at all hours in order to inflict terror.”
Due to cyberbullying’s potentially public nature, “attacking someone in a work group email…or posting about them on social media” compounds the harm, notes researcher Natalia D’Souza. “Digital content leaves a trail and is much harder to erase permanently, meaning that any abuse or allegations online could pose a more enduring threat to targets’ personal and professional lives, particularly since employers and recruiters can easily access this information through a web search.”
The internet factor
The internet empowers bullies. Pseudonyms and alternate usernames allow cyberbullies to conceal their real identities. Because internet users can’t see each other, they don’t always consider those they comment about as persons, allowing themselves to dissociate cruel remarks from the hurt their posts cause. This anonymity seems to create a situation in which individuals sink to the lowest common denominator of behavior.
An early example of this workplace cyberbullying happened in 1995 to Continental Airlines pilot Tammy Blakey. Other Continental Airline pilots and crew members used an internet-based Crew Members Forum to learn their work schedules, receive flight information and exchange viewpoints. Blakey found multiple posts describing her as a weak pilot who destroyed an engine, crashed a floatplane and caused $250,000 damage to a plane by flying it through hail.
What targets can and need to do
Here’s what I told Janet. If you impulsively delete offensive posts, you destroy potentially needed evidence. If you eliminate an offensive post, the bully may create nearly infinite dummy accounts and post increasingly worse content.
If you take a deep breath and ground yourself, you can choose a reasoned response. This might involve enlisting the Internet Service Provider in shutting down the cyberbully. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram all provide have online reporting mechanisms for abusive content.
Actions employers need to take
A target’s employer needs to help as well. When Tammy Blakey sued Continental Airlines, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that employers have “a duty to take effective measures to stop co-employee harassment when the employer knows or has reason to know” the harassment is “part of a pattern of harassment” in a setting “related to the workplace.”
At a minimum, employers need to protect their companies and employees with proactive social media policies that meet National Labor Relations Board parameters. Sample language might include, “If you decide to post work-related criticism, avoid using statements that reasonably could be viewed as malicious, obscene, threatening or intimidating, that disparage customers, members, associates or suppliers, or that might constitute harassment or bullying” and policies that prohibit employees from engaging in “harassment, bullying, discrimination, or retaliation of co-workers that would not be permissible in the workplace…even if these actions are taken after hours, from home and on home computers.”
Don’t let a cyberbully chase you from your job or make you afraid to turn on your computer.