Helen Borger speaks to Dr Felicity Lawrence about combating workplace cyberbullying. 

The ubiquitous smartphone, pulsating with contact lists, apps, internet browsers, integrated email, GPS, social media, texts and the capability for good old-fashioned talking, has almost become an extension of ourselves. And when we are not clutching our ‘beloved’ smartphones, we can most likely be found tapping away on some other internet enabled device at work or at home.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority estimates that 74 per cent of Australian adults were using smartphones in May 2015. Also, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says 95 per cent of businesses had internet access as at 30 June 2014, and nearly 13 million Australians were connected to the internet in 2015.

Smartphones, laptops, desktops and tablets, as well as the social media, email, and so on that they enable can create much workplace productivity. But they also have a dark side, transforming into weapons of abuse and humiliation in just a few taps or clicks.

Dr Felicity Lawrence recently completed a PhD on workplace cyberbullying at the Queensland University of Technology. Lawrence surveyed 614 participants— secretaries, CEOs, executives, middle management and junior staff, across local, state and federal government agencies. She found half to 72 per cent of participants experienced or observed some form of workplace cyberbullying.

Lawrence says the advent of mobile technology means cyberbullying can follow workers around and be perpetrated at all hours of the day: “It is more intense than face-to-face bullying because it can go viral and be inescapable and hard to remove from the internet.”

The bullies can be anyone: co-workers, managers or customers. Lawrence says their behaviour may include customers guessing workers’ direct email addresses from organisational websites and sending aggressive missives; co-workers covertly criticising targeted workers via emails, texts and phone calls; workers copying managers into email communication that puts the recipient (co-worker) in a bad light; and persistent and demanding texts and emails sent early in the morning or very late in the evening.

Lawrence also speaks of the establishment of Facebook pages unbeknown to the targeted person for the express purpose of damaging their reputation. This is particularly problematic when the person changes jobs. When prospective employers conduct the inevitable Google search to check out the potential employee, damaging Facebook pages pop up with devastating effect.

On top of this, anonymous email and other social media accounts established to deride and harass co-workers, employees or managers also take their toll, she adds.

The bullying may also swing between cyberspace and real life. Cyberbullying that starts on Facebook is 50 per cent more likely to move back and forth between the two mediums, according to Lawrence.

Complicating the issue is the existence of malicious versus unintentional bullying. Lawrence says both are unacceptable, but notes that communication is a ‘messy’ business. As an example, she points to the absence of social cues in written online communication, which may lead people in receipt of such communication to misinterpret it as aggressive.

Lawrence says integrated individual and organisational strategies should be implemented to prevent and put an end to cyberbullying.

At an individual level, she says, online communication training can highlight the sometimes fraught nature of such communication and how to prevent problems escalating.

Individuals should also be made aware of their rights and how to report incidents in a factual, non-emotional manner to their bosses and/or HR, she says. Bosses and HR should also be trained in how to receive these reports and know when to refer people to appropriate services. If a person has been subjected to sustained cyberbullying, “they may be just holding it together” and possibly experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she adds.

Importantly, when cyberbullying investigations are required, it is best to use an independent panel to help provide neutrality, Lawrence advises.

On the organisational front, she explains that respectful workplace policies created in conjunction with employees and linked to recruitment, training, performance management and promotions—as well as management living out these policies daily—can help ensure that bad behaviour becomes outlier behaviour. It also gives individual employees permission to feel comfortable in calling out such behaviour when they see it.

This story was first published in the May-June 2016 edition of National Safety. It is reproduced with the permission of the NSCA Foundation.

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