Cyber bullying can take many forms and is sometimes subtle enough that it’s hard to detect. As a victim, it can be upsetting and could lead to mental health issues and absenteeism. If you believe you’ve been a victim of cyber bullying in the workplace, you do not have to suffer in silence. There are steps you can take to deal with it, and your employer is obliged to take firm and decisive action to support you.
What exactly is cyber bullying?
There is no fixed definition in a legal context, but it is essentially any type of bullying act or harassment that takes place online or through the use of electronic devices. This includes social media platforms, SMS and messaging services, apps, forums, or email. The effects of cyber bullying can range from slight upset to acute fear, anxiety or depression, which may likely impact on performance at work or prevent an employee from working.
What amounts to bullying?
Behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended could be constituted as bullying or harassment. It will often involve someone sending, posting or sharing negative, offensive, harmful, false or humiliating material about someone, or otherwise acting in a manner to them which is intentionally mean or intimidating.
Examples include spreading malicious rumours, unfair treatment, picking on or regularly undermining someone or not promoting them for spurious reasons.
However, cyber bullying can be far less explicit. It may take the form of an unnecessary or ambiguous comment or post; for instance, saying to a colleague “I’m still waiting for X to complete the project…”
This could insinuate that person X is at fault, even though the speaker knows that person X has been off work sick and will be completing the project later that day.
Cyber bullying can also include sharing personal or private information, sharing photos with a view to causing embarrassment or humiliation, as well as hacking someone’s account or tricking them into sharing personal information. Alternatively, the bullying may be by way of deliberately leaving someone out.
Is bullying illegal?
Bullying is not a criminal offence although harassment may be (in which case there may also be a civil or person-to-person claim); see below. Harassment may be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, which protects employees against harassment (as defined) in relation to age, disability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership. You can also bring a civil action for harassment.
Certain behaviours may also break defamation, data protection or privacy laws, such as sharing private information like an employee’s salary, political or religious beliefs, or disciplinary record.
In extreme instances, some behaviours could amount to a criminal offence, e.g. making a serious threat against another person.
What can employees do about cyberbullying at work?
If you think you’ve been a victim of cyberbullying in the workplace, do not ignore it in the hope that it will cease, or because you believe it’s one of those things you have to put up with: it isn’t. Bear in mind that your employer may be completely unaware of what is going on.
Responding to cyber bullying
Make a note of what is going on
Whatever the behaviour towards you is, keep a record of it. Take screen shots of social media posts or comments, keep emails and record anything you think may amount to bullying.
Check your privacy settings and rights
Although privacy tools don’t offer total protection, it’s a good place to start. Check who is following your profiles and who can see your posts. Social media privacy settings change from time to time, so it’s worth making sure you check them on a regular basis.
Be cautious when responding directly to a bully
Tempting as it may be to fire back at an unkind or offensive comment, it is rarely, if ever, the right thing to do. Take time out to consider whether you should respond at all or confront the person making the comments. Avoid getting involved in an online conflict; any response should be calm and measured.
If the bullying is occurring on your personal social media, report it to the platform holder, e.g. if it’s happening on Facebook, use Facebook’s reporting tools to make them aware of the offensive comment. You could also block the perpetrator.
If the bullying includes any threats of death, violence or stalking, you may consider also reporting it to the police.
Talk to someone
It can be hard to speak out about bullying. However, it’s important not to suffer in silence. Talk to your line manager, or whomever you need in the HR department. If you find this too difficult, approach a friend or colleague and ask them to help you. If you’re aware of someone else being bullied, don’t ignore it. You should report your concerns to the appropriate manager.
What should your employer do to prevent cyber bullying at work?
Certain types of harassment are unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. However, all employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe working environment. This means they must take reasonable steps to prevent cyberbullying.
Your employer should have an anti-bullying policy in place. This should include guidance on cyber bullying and social media use, making it clear what types of behaviour are unacceptable. Ideally, the policy should state what kinds of content are acceptable to post on work-related social media accounts and personal accounts away from the workplace.
Employees often don’t realise the full implications of what they say on a personal profile about work-related matters. Your employer’s social media policy should carefully explain this to everyone.
Dealing with complaints
Even if your employer hasn’t got an adequate anti-bullying policy, they must take your allegations seriously and investigate them. An employer may be able to monitor emails and social networking sites, although they must inform the affected employees that they are doing so, and they must have a reason that can be justified under data protection law.
Following the investigation, it may be that the matter can be resolved informally. Sometimes the perpetrator may be unaware that their behaviour has caused offence; they may genuinely remorseful and be prepared to change their behaviour.
Formal grievance and claims
If the matter cannot be resolved informally, it may be necessary to follow your employer’s formal grievance procedure. Should this not result in a resolution, you may then need to seek professional advice about bringing a claim against your employer. What claim you will able to bring will depend on your circumstances, but could include claiming for harassment or even, in extreme cases, constructive dismissal.
Stamping out bullying in the workplace
With statistics suggesting that as many as one in five employees may have been the victim of bullying in the workplace, it’s important that employers adopt a robust, zero tolerance approach. The impact of bullying on an individual can undermine their performance, and their mental health. For employers, the cost of lost productivity and sick pay can be significant.
Creating the right attitude and work environment is vital. As an employee, you are entitled to be able to go about your work without being bullied. If you’d like more advice on how to deal with cyber bullying, get in touch today and speak to a member of our team.