Bullying is a hot topic in workplaces, as legislation in some jurisdictions has heightened both the awareness and penalties for harassment and violence.
But not all work-related bullying takes place face-to-face, or even in the workplace. Are employers taking less visible, non-traditional bullying — through emails, texts, blogs or social networking — seriously? If not, they should be, according to a study out of the United Kingdom.
Eight out of 10 employees have experienced some kind of cyberbullying behaviour in the last six months, while anywhere from 14 per cent to 20 per cent have experienced this behaviour — such as being harassed by emails, abusive postings, being ignored or malicious gossip — at least once per week.
It might have something to do with the virtual environment having reduced cues or a depersonalization effect, where the bullies are not really thinking of a person on the receiving end, said Iain Coyne, associate professor in occupational psychology at the University of Nottingham and lead author of the study.
“The virtual network or environment, whether it’s computers or phones, does tend to promote more of a shoot-from-the-hip response really, so an individual will fire the email off or send the text message or pick up the phone and criticize someone,” he said.
“It seems to stop that initial block that you might have if you’re doing it face-to-face where you might check your response or be less inhibited.”
While it’s not a definitive study and rather small — based on a survey of 320 employees at three universities — it’s a starting point to better understand cyberbullying behaviour, said Christine Sprigg, a lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Sheffield and co-author.
“It’s this kind of lack of disinhibition effect, really, where you feel you can just write anything because you’re not actually there, hiding behind your screen or your email.”
Perceptions of fairness
While the frequency of cyberbullying is a concern, the impact is even more worrying, according to the study, which found online bullying can have a stronger negative impact on employee mental strain and job satisfaction than off-line, face-to-face bullying.
Part of the reason is this behaviour more strongly violates a victim’s perception of fairness and he feels this is violating dignity in the workplace, said Sprigg.
“So you experienced a negative emotion because you were being bullied, and then it was this negative emotion that then led to people saying, ‘We’re dissatisfied and we’re feeling stressed,’” she said.
It’s also about support, because the bullying behaviour can follow a person home, through emails or texts.
“You can’t get away from it quite so much,” said Sprigg. “What we think’s happening with cyberbullying is that it’s sticking with you a bit more.”
Online bullying is especially impactful because it can touch both ends of the scale, by being completely private or very public, said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton.
“People feel alone, that no one’s there to support them or they feel that everybody knows what’s going on and that itself is part of the reaction.”
The message itself or the tone can be harsher online, so people may be facing much stronger forms of abusive behaviour, said Coyne. And if the perpetrator is anonymous, victims can feel even more powerless.
“Yes, you can switch these things off but, as we know, modern life revolves around lots of communication, so it’s not easy and simple to just switch things off and think, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m done with that.’”
This area of research is developing so it’s hard to claim this as an absolute finding, said Aaron Schat, assistant professor in human resources at McMaster University in Hamilton, who has studied workplace aggression.
But there are some aspects that make cyberbullying unique and could make its effect worse. For example, it’s more difficult to avoid — there is not really a physical escape, he said.
“In cyberbullying, you just don’t have that safe haven.”
The potential audience for cyberbullying is also larger, which can amplify a victim’s humiliation, said Schat. And with online bullying, there’s often a record of it, be it a text or video, which can be read and reread by the victim and others.
“There’s an aspect there that suggests you’re being continuously revictimized by the same act and that can have a cumulative effect,” he said.
Witnesses less affected than with traditional bullying
Despite this, witnesses to cyberbullying are less affected than when they see traditional bullying, according to the U.K. study.
In off-line bullying, a witness can see the effect bullying has on people and it can impact his well-being, said Sprigg.
But in an online chat room or social network, witnesses can be far removed from it, with some going so far as to say they “like” a nasty comment, she said.
Online communication can lack the same emotional or social bond found off-line, and it’s much more impersonal, said Coyne.
“If you don’t feel the impact on the victim, then you’re not going to yourself feel the impact.”
There is an emotional impact to seeing mistreatment occur live and in person that’s not present in cyberbullying, said Schat. And directly witnessing mistreatment often results in empathy, which can be emotionally taxing and undermine a person’s well-being.
“If you’re not physically observing the behaviour, there’s a sense that empathy could be diminished somewhat.”
Also, when somebody witnesses mistreatment and doesn’t respond, guilt can occur. But with cyberbullying, witnesses often can’t do anything, so they may not experience that guilt, he said.
How should employers be responding?
But there are probably more similarities than differences when it comes to online and off-line bullying, according to Yves Deschenes, associate vice-president of human resources at Centennial College in Toronto, citing similar group dynamic issues and people reliving the bullying situations.
“It’s true there is something tangible about a Facebook post or email but then, by the same token, it also gives you a tangible piece of evidence in terms of ‘I’m being bullied,’” he said.
Cyberbullying is covered in Centennial’s violence prevention policy, defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others.”
Largely directed at students, the policy also covers employees and cites as an example faculty who are bullied online with a Facebook page or emails.
Employers should make sure they support employees when it comes to cyberbullying, as with other violence and harassment programs, so there are procedures and written policies in place, said Chappel.
“It may be necessary for the workplace to take action, whether it’s blocking emails or changing how things are posted.”
Employers also need to consider whether the policies on bullying, harassment and dignity at work cover aspects of cyberbullying that are happening outside of work but involve colleagues or superiors, said Coyne.
Also, there should be a mechanism in place so individuals can report informally about something they consider inappropriate, he said.
And they might want to consider having employees acting as “cyber-mentors,” said Coyne, citing a program used by the U.K. charity Beat Bullying that has children acting as mentors for other children, for a large part of the day, providing guidance and support.
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