What employers can do to stop cyber bullying at work

Anti-bullying Week is a timely reminder for employers to look at the growing risk of cyber bullying at work. David Webb, an employment adviser at Acas, looks at examples and gives tips on what employers can do to prevent it.

Anti-bullying Week brings out of the shadows one type of bullying that can be harder to spot and eradicate than others: bullying online at work, ie cyber bullying.

This can be harder to spot among colleagues or employees who work for different organisations and can be subtle. Examples of cyber bullying include:

  • A social media post that would have been unnecessary if they had simply phoned you up about their query instead. But it now requires a careful post in reply to nip it in the bud as their post has gained traction and others have quickly joined in, often posting first and thinking later.
  • An email from a colleague that carries an unpleasant undertone.
  • A barrage of emails from a manager just before you go on leave on matters that could have been dealt with much earlier.

Messages can often be interpreted differently by different people, sometimes allowing the bully to talk their way out of the situation.

Cyber bullying can also be hard to spot in other ways - the victim simply may not be aware of the posts on a social media site that they never use, while some of their colleagues have seen them, yet say nothing. However, the victim senses a difference in their behaviour and feels uncomfortable but doesn't really know why.

Also, malice behind cyber bullying can be further disguised by the victim thinking to themselves: "I'm an adult. I know something's not right but I just need to toughen up and get on with my job."

But toughening up might not be enough. The victim can be left feeling isolated, affecting their mental health, job performance and commitment to the organisation. They may end up leaving.

And cyber bullying is not always clandestine. For example, the bully will post a comment with the full intention that the victim will see it and be intimidated and distressed.

There are many things victims can do to help prevent and deal with cyber bullying such as:

  • Regularly check the privacy settings on their social networking pages, as they can change. However, they should bear in mind that privacy settings are no protection if a "friend" copies some of their information or posts and sends it on to others.
  • Keep emails or social media posts they are aware of that they think amount to bullying.
  • Know their rights on their personal information. A bully who posts details of someone's personal information, such as salary, political or religious beliefs or disciplinary record, could be breaking defamation, data protection or privacy laws.
  • Make a note of any incidents that happen offline that seem to tie in to the emails or posts in some way - for example, they may think they have been unfairly overlooked for a career development opportunity.
  • If an employee thinks they have enough evidence, they should speak to a manager or trade union representative about the matter to try to settle it without going through the employer's formal complaints or discipline procedures, but… If that doesn't work they can make a formal complaint through the employer's grievance procedure.
  • If an employer does receive a complaint about cyber bullying then it should investigate the matter thoroughly and promptly. It might be possible to resolve the matter without going through formal complaints or disciplinary procedures. The perpetrator might not realise their behaviour is unacceptable, apologise and commit to changing their ways; or the employer may decide the matter has to be dealt with through formal procedures.

What an employer can do to tackle cyber bullying

In consultation with employee or trade union representatives, the employer should have, or should draw up, a policy on cyber bullying, making clear the types of behaviour that are unacceptable both inside and outside the workplace.

Clarity is needed because there can be confusion over what is unacceptable behaviour. Some employees believe they should be able to say what they want on their own social media pages, especially if these comments are made outside of work. And often they do not realise the implications of making derogatory remarks about people they work with.

The cyber bullying policy might be part of an overall policy on bullying and should also be referred to in the organisation's disciplinary and grievance policies, and any separate policy on the use of social media. Communicate the cyber bullying policy clearly to all staff.

An employer can monitor emails and social networking sites if an employee reports instances of cyber bullying. But an employer must tell the employees being watched, and have established that the reasons for monitoring are justified under data protection law. To find out more, go to the Information Commissioner's Office.

When inducting new staff, an employer should use some of the time during the first few weeks of employment to inform the new starter of the organisation's policies and acceptable standards of behaviour.

David Webb is part of the team at Acas communicating advice to employers, employees, employee representatives and HR professionals.