3 min read

The Rise of Cyberbullying in the Workplace

Image of a person using a laptop and phone

Most of us recognize bullying when we see it. As something we first encountered on the playground, in locker rooms, or school hallways, we often associate bullying with childhood or adolescence. Today, though, in our ever-connected online world, it can be harder to see that shove into the lockers for what it is. Especially when it happens virtually. As an adult. At work.

Despite the many benefits of technology, workplace cyberbullying is a growing problem that can have serious consequences for both the target and the perpetrator, particularly in the current climate of remote and virtual work environments.

Cyberbullying is defined as the use of electronic communication to harass, intimidate, or bully a co-worker. It can take many forms, including emails, texts, social media posts, video calls, and online discussions.

Workplace cyberbullying may be more subtle than bullying amongst kids but it’s equally distressing and damaging for adults.  As more employees work more often from remote devices, especially since the pandemic, it’s important to apply the same levels of caution and care to remote or virtual work environments than we do to traditional workspaces. My company, Respect Group, has been working remotely in the virtual realm from the very beginning in 2004, so we know this space—cyberspace—very well.  

In a 2021 survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that nearly half of employed workers conduct all or a portion of their work remotely. The results of the survey revealed that 43% of these workers reported being bullied, and that cyberbullying happens 5 times more often in virtual meetings than by email. Furthermore, 70% of the online maltreatment reported happened publicly in front of others, meaning in open communication channels. This suggests that remote workers feel bolder and perhaps less accountable for their inappropriate behaviors.  

Like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying typically occurs over time, but because it happens online, those who bully generally don’t witness first-hand the pain they’re causing, making it easier for them to continue and even increase the intensity of their attacks. Left unchecked, it doesn’t take long for bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination—what we call BAHD behaviours—to spread, creating a toxic workplace. 

The reach and power of technology can not be overstated 

Harassing messages, posts, and photos are distributed quickly to a very wide audience, including strangers outside the organization. Once something is posted or sent, it’s almost impossible to completely erase all traces of it.

As lines blur between our personal and professional presence online, we need to be aware of cyberbullying beyond work hours, particularly on social media platforms.This can include posting embarrassing or sensitive information about a co-worker or making hurtful comments on their personal or corporate social media profiles.

In most jurisdictions threats made online are the same as threats made face to face, so cyberbullying needs to be treated the same way you’d treat any form of workplace maltreatment, regardless of where it happens.

Consequences

The consequences of cyberbullying can be severe for both the victim and the perpetrator. Victims often experience decreased job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and physical and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. In extreme cases, it can even lead to suicide. In addition to the individual impacts, workplace cyberbullying can also create a negative work environment, as coworkers may become afraid to speak out or share their ideas, leading to a decline in productivity, morale, creativity and collaboration.

For the perpetrator, workplace cyberbullying can result in disciplinary action, including termination. It can also damage their reputation and make it difficult to find future employment. People have lost their jobs and missed out on career opportunities, despite being the best candidate, based on what employers have found online through a simple name search. 

How to address cyberbullying

But all is not lost! There are several ways that companies can address cyberbullying while embracing technology and fostering respectful virtual work environments. One of the most important is to have clear policies in place that outline what is and is not acceptable behavior. These policies should be communicated to all employees and enforced consistently.

It is also important for companies to provide resources for employees who are experiencing cyberbullying, such as counseling services or employee assistance programs. Training is key. Employees should be educated about the signs of cyberbullying and what to do if they witness it or are the target of it. 

Beyond the organizational measures needed to address workplace cyberbullying, here are some steps employees can take to protect themselves:

  1. Document any instances of cyberbullying and report them immediately to HR or a supervisor.
  2. If you are the target of cyberbullying, seek support and don’t retaliate. Retaliating is likely to escalate the situation and make things worse. 
  3. If you feel your personal safety is in danger, don’t hesitate to contact police. 
  4. Be mindful of what you post on social media and be careful not to share sensitive information.
  5. Talk about cyberbullying with your colleagues. The more the issue is discussed and handled proactively, the sooner your workplace becomes one where this behaviour is simply not tolerated.

Get to know the author – Sheldon Kennedy

 

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