Cyber bullying, which is bullying that takes place over digital devices such as cell phones, computers, and tablets, is a growing problem, globally. Cyber bullying is defined as bullying, harassment or victimisation that takes place on blogs, email or social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This could be directed at either an employee or a manager and may include inappropriate photographs, offensive messages, or direct threats. Cyber bullying can take place in the office or outside of work hours, and the victim may even be unaware that this abuse is taking place. Some cyber bullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behaviour.
The most common platforms where cyber bullying takes place are:
- Social media platforms, which include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter
- SMSes sent via digital devices – and also referred to as text messages
- Instant Messages via email provider services, and social media messaging features
- Emails 1+2
What makes cyber bullying so dangerous?
Cyber bullying combines the distressing effects of face-to-face bullying with several added elements that are unique to its technology-enabled format.
- Technology allows the culprit to remain anonymous: It is possible that a person may be cyber-bullied by a stranger or a close acquaintance without ever being sure who the culprit is. Plus, when interacting with their victims via a digital device, bullies may feel empowered to say and do far more destructive things than they would face-to-face or in earshot of others.
- Technology gives the bully a bigger audience: Cyber bullying can escalate what might have begun as a one-off incident into a smear campaign that is accessible to the whole world. All it takes is for someone to forward an email to colleagues or friends who then forward it on for the bullying to “go viral” and reach a large audience.
- Cyber bullying follows the victim home: An employee being bullied at work may find refuge in their personal space, but a victim of cyber bullying is connected the perpetrator whenever he or she is connected to a cell phone or computer—particularly in today’s increasingly “always on” world of work.
- Offensive material can be permanently accessible: It may be almost impossible to entirely delete offensive material that a makes public on the internet. Once a rumour has been spread or a photo or video has been shared in cyberspace, it could be accessible by other people into the foreseeable future. 3+4
What can leaders do to ensure their organisation does not inadvertently support cyber bullying?
- Examine your management style. The overall workplace environment plays a crucial role in curbing bullying of any kind, and a culture of tolerating bullying often starts at the top of an organisation.
- Negatively speaking, the setting up of rigid hierarchies along with the acceptance of an autocratic management style, or a lack of accountability, or overlooking passive-aggressive behaviour may all serve to hide, or enable, a culture of bullying.
- Positively speaking, organisations can promote a positive workplace environment – one in which disrespect and discourtesy is recognised as harmful precursors to bullying and where there is a clear commitment to taking these seriously. 5
- Define ‘bullying’, ‘harassment’ and ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in HR policies. Ensure that all employees, as well as managers, are trained in what to look for and the correct procedure for reporting any form of bullying that is noticed or experienced. It is important to give regular refresher training and induct new staff into an organisation’s policies on bullying.
- Have a consistent approach to grievance and disciplinary procedures that treats both employees fairly. South African employers are legally entitled to stipulate in their employment contracts that all electronic communications equipment is provided for business use only and that private use is prohibited; and furthermore that the interception of communications shall take place from time to time and that any breach of these requirements shall result in disciplinary action which may lead to dismissal. To combat cyber bullying employers should include mistreatment of social networking in their discipline and grievance policies, giving clear examples of what will be regarded as gross misconduct.
- Keep your organisation’s social media policy up to date. Organisations must develop social media policy, setting out what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at work when using the internet, emails, smart phones, and networking websites. One example of unacceptable behaviour is posting derogatory or offensive comments on the internet about the organisation, management or a colleague.
- Set up a simple reporting process. A simple reporting process in which employees know they will be taken seriously can encourage them to report offensive messages and inappropriate content sooner.
- Act upon reports quickly. Employers should take every complaint seriously and investigate it promptly. Take swift corrective action as soon as bullying is revealed and make it clear bullies are not rewarded. If left unchecked or handled badly, cyber bullying can create serious problems for individuals, teams and organisations, leading to poor employee relations and a drop in morale that can give rise to poor performance and diminished productivity – and a loss of respect for management.
Curbing cyber bullying while staying on the right side of the law
While cyber bullying may present a good reason for tracking employees’ emails and messages at work, employers need to stay on the right side of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information act 70 of 2002.
In practical terms the Act determines that if an employer intercepts and reads employees’ e-mails without consent or a clearly communicated policy, the employer will be contravening the Act. Social media policies must be drafted in such a way that they not only regulate the conduct of the employees, but also to protect the organisation from contravening the Act. It is important to note that if the cyber bullying evidence the employer obtains in this way is illegally obtained it may be inadmissible in the disciplinary hearing or by the CCMA. 6