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Cyberbullies in the Workplace

Five ways to protect employees from virtual harassment

Back Article Apr 6, 2022 By Josh Smith

This story is part of our April 2022 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

Businesses in the Capital Region are no strangers to the positive impacts of technological advancements, enabling employees more flexible schedules that have resulted in improved performance. However, there is one area in which the use of technology for remote environments is posing an increasing threat to employees and employers: cyberbullying.

Although bullying in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, employers may not be as aware of cyberbullying — the act of intimidating, degrading or undermining a fellow employee through online communication. The internet has facilitated a modern-day Wild West, as cyberbullies invade the lives of victims and leave them feeling worried and vulnerable. The emergence of remote work has broadened the horizons for cyberbullying, as more offenders are out from under the watchful eyes of supervisors in physical environments, and more targets are isolated in off-site locations.

Employers should take proactive steps to harness the advancement of virtual harassment, intimidation and cyberbullies’ bad behavior. 

Here are five ways to protect employees:

Defining methods and types

When employers understand the ways employees can be cyberbullied, they are in a better position to develop and execute plans to address and prevent the situation. 

Cyberbullies may use numerous electronic means to harass victims, including email, text messages, instant messaging, video conferencing, blogs, chat rooms and social media platforms. When used in concert, affected employees feel trapped because there can be no escape from a barrage of attacks. 

Some examples of cyberbullying include impersonating a leader, supervisor or co-worker, outing secrets and personal information to large groups of employees, and trolling by posting negative comments on social media posts. 

Recognizing the signs

Sometimes, managers, employees and witnesses may not recognize the warning signs until the situation escalates to a serious level. Some examples include threatening emails that use patronizing language, copying management on emails when mistakes are pointed out to employees, humiliating employees on social media platforms seen by large groups of co-workers, sending intimidating text messages on personal phones that employers cannot track, and taking credit for others’ work during video conferencing calls. 

If everyone can recognize warning signs earlier, there might be a chance to reconcile situations in the early stages before an employee begins to feel unsafe, hopeless or uncertain about job security. If left unchecked, employers may face losing more than just the victimized employee. Co-workers may note the inaction of leadership and take steps to leave an organization that does not protect its employees.

Creating or updating policies

The first step is to create or update anti-bullying policies that clearly define bullying, cyberbullying, discrimination, harassment and inappropriate behavior. Policies should also be created or updated to establish best practices and outline expectations for acceptable use of social networking sites. There should be a strong emphasis on zero tolerance that can lead to disciplinary action. 

After policies are updated, it is a good idea to share the changes with employees via an all-employee email from HR, postings on the company intranet and reminders at team meetings. These measures not only help to remind the workforce about anti-bullying policies, but they might also serve as a deterrent for existing cyberbullying activities that have not yet been reported. 

Educating and training employees   

Education and training are critical to recognizing and preventing cyberbullying in the workplace. When employees can identify the signs of cyberbullying, either from a third-party or victim’s perspective, they are better able to take the appropriate steps to report it. Required education and training on cyberbullying can be incorporated into an annual anti-harassment course. 

One-sheet flyers with bullet points of the warning signs can also be distributed in new employee packets and periodically during the year, demonstrating an employer’s zero-tolerance policy toward cyberbullying and undesirable behavior. The sooner incidents are reported, the quicker they can result in resolutions and improve the working conditions for all workers. 

Making employees feel safe

Employers have a moral obligation to make employees feel safe in their work environment — in the office or remote — so they are free from distractions and able to focus on their jobs. In an effort to help facilitate this safety, employers should offer a confidential reporting system through a third-party vendor for incidents. Many times, victims may feel embarrassed that they allowed themselves to be cyberbullied, and/or the offender is in an executive or managerial role, so they are hesitant to come forward to report the abuse. 

When employers are notified, they should take immediate action to investigate the situation in a sensitive and fair manner that demonstrates their commitment to taking claims seriously and making employees feel safe. Leaders should address victims’ mental health by conducting regular check-ins and offering the services of an Employee Assistance Program.

As businesses in the Capital Region take the necessary steps to rein in cyberbullying, the workplace will be a safer environment that supports highly engaged employees who can reach their full potential and contribute to ongoing organizational success.  

Josh Smith is a district manager for Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions. 

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