Beat the cyber bullies at their own (computer) game!
What is Cyber bullying?
Cyber bullying usually involves negative, threatening, offensive or abusive emails, social media postings, or group messages. It can also include frequent interruptions during virtual meetings, excessive email monitoring of an employee when working from home or excluding employees from group emails or virtual meetings.
Cyber bullying need not be direct – it can be much more subtle than an abusive “not-so funny” group WhatsApp message or personal email.
We have heard stories of indirect cyber bullying in the physical workplace, done simultaneously with a virtual personal attack. In one particular instance, a junior member of staff was made to stand beside his boss as she corrected his work at the same time as sending WhatsApp messages from her phone to another senior manager of the company (who was working from home) – messages which included insulting remarks about the quality of work produced by her junior colleague, who could see right there and then exactly what was being written about him in the WhatsApp messages, and could also see from his boss’s desktop computer screen that disparaging emails about several members of staff had been exchanged between his boss and other senior managers in the company. Although he raised the issue with the company’s head of HR, nothing was done to address the situation, and he left the company shortly afterwards.
As the lines between work and home life become increasingly blurred, already challenging workforce dynamics are likely to be exacerbated as employers and employees adapt to the “new normal” of home and remote working.
Employers need to be aware of the potential claims which an employee can bring if they are subject to bullying or harassment in the virtual workplace, and should take steps to ensure that internal practices, policies, procedures and training are up-to-date (and implemented!) so as to protect employees and to minimise risks to the business going forward.
Failure to address employee cyber bullying right from the outset will not only harm your employees and their careers (sometimes irreparably), it will also damage your company’s reputation, and will inevitably expose the company to claims associated with bullying, including:
- victimisation and marginalisation
- breach of employment contract
- breach of implied term of mutual trust and confidence
- constructive dismissal
- failure to provide a safe (virtual) working environment
- personal injury
- even criminal offences (involving the sending of communications that convey a threat, or false information, or are intended by the sender to cause harm to the reader or recipient).
Implementing anti-bullying and harassment measures
So as to protect employees and provide them with a safe, healthy and productive working environment, and to minimise the risks associated with employee cyber bullying in the workplace (whether physical or virtual or a combination of both), employers should consider the following:
- reviewing and updating the company’s internal (i) anti-bullying / harassment policies (ii) disciplinary procedures (iii) complaints procedures (iv) whistle blowing and (iv) social media policies to ensure that they make specific reference to cyber bullying and address the current changes in remote working practices.
- arranging internal training for senior management on how to identify and deal with employee cyber bullying and harassment.
- adopting a ‘zero-tolerance’ corporate culture and policy towards bullying and harassment in the workplace.
- encouraging employees to report (whistle blow) any concerns, whether as victims themselves, or as witnesses to abusive behaviour towards their colleagues.
- dealing with any complaints quickly, sympathetically, and sensitively.
In instances of cyber bullying, prevention is always better (for everyone concerned) than cure.
This Newsletter is not intended to be and should not be relied on as legal advice. You should seek professional legal advice before taking any action in relation to the subject-matter of this Newsletter.