Cyber bullying has long been associated with the intentional bullying of teenagers by their peers, however, adults in the workplace are not immune.
Although email is the oldest vehicle for cyber-bullying, methods including texting, phone calls, and recently social networking sites, mean malicious information can be disseminated to larger audiences. The range of methods, lack of face-to-face communication and ability to contact the victim 24 hours a day, contribute to the severity of cyber-bullying and has the potential to escalate faster and be more aggressive.
As with traditional bullying, there is a fine line between banter and bullying. Often a message that someone finds hilarious can be highly offensive to someone else depending on a number of facets such as gender, race, religion, class. Many people publish information on Social Media websites such as Facebook and Twitter without taking into account that once it's online, you can't take it back. Employees need to be reminded that anything they post online can be seen by anyone and can remain visible indefinitely.
In general, the significance of cyber-bullying is underestimated by employers and consequentially is not prioritised as an issue requiring attention. However reports suggest that as many as 1 in 5 employees experience workplace bullying, including cyber-bullying. Workplace bullying is estimated to cost UK employers more than £2bn a year in sick pay, staff turnover and lost production. The psychological and emotional outcomes of cyber bullying are similar to real-life bullying. Bullying and cyber-bullying can seriously affect morale, cause undue fear, stress, emotional exhaustion and serious health and psychological issues. The aggravating factor is that with cyber bullying there is often no escape, the increased prevalence of portable communications tools such as BlackBerry's and iPhones is making cyber bullying a problem outside of the physical work environment and traditional working hours. Working time may end at 6pm while the Internet is available 24 x7.
Whether it's e-bullying or face-to-face, there are laws surrounding both harassment and bullying in the UK. Employees can take legal action if they feel they are the victim of internet bullying. This can have serious repercussions for employer and employees as both can face Employment Tribunals and even civil claims against them. Many employers are simply not equipped to deal with these issues. Managers and HR departments are struggling to detect on-line bullies and bring them to account as Cyber-bullies use anonymity as a weapon, seemingly without fear of retribution or punishment.
Success in today's challenging business climate requires adaptability and responsiveness to our new realities. It's essential therefore that organisations include social networking guidance in their anti-bullying policy, and build it into employee inductions. Disciplinary procedures should reinforce this and clearly lay out the sanctions where bullying takes place. Grievance Procedures should provide an outlet for victims of bullying, to raise it with their employers and have the perpetrators challenged.