Skip to Main Content

Cyberbullying in workplaces

Photo by Getty Images

One type of bullying that is not always associated with the workplace is cyberbullying.

"We hear more about it in schools and educational contexts, but really what cyberbullying is is it involves the use of technology, the use of social media to undermine someone,” says Aaron Schat, associate professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “And certainly that can and does take place in organizational settings as well."

There are many different ways it can unfold, and the target of the bullying may or may not be aware of it.

"It could involve a text during a meeting, for example — a text from one colleague to another about perhaps another colleague in the room, whether it’s ‘Did you see what she’s wearing?’ or ‘Did you hear what that idiot said this time?’ so it can be something like that. It could be emails sent between individuals about someone else," says Schat.

"It could be the sending of pictures of the person, perhaps doctored in a way that makes them look ridiculous. And it could also involve sending the victim directly him or herself a text, an email, pictures, links, et cetera that in some way belittle them, make them feel foolish."

Cyberbullying can also expand into employees’ personal time and social media accounts, he adds.

"That’s certainly one of the challenges of cyberbullying is it doesn’t necessarily have physical barriers on it, so it could kind of bleed outside of the workplace but still involve co-workers."

There’s also the false sense of anonymity that comes along with cyberbullying, says Schat — but it can still create reputational risk for an organization.

"There’s a lot of risk that companies face in their reputation, and possibly legal risks and so forth if their workers are engaging in this type of behaviour."

Guarding your workplace

Employers need to have solid, well-disseminated policies and procedures to address workplace bullying, as well as proper enforcement, Schat says.

"They need to talk about it and address it very openly, and develop policy around it. And not policy that is kind of dry and meaningless, but policy that’s backed up by regular, ongoing communication, and enforcement," he says.

"It’s important that organizations not tolerate indicators or instances of cyberbullying, or any kind of bullying when that behaviour occurs."

It’s also important to train employees and managers around properly documenting incidents of bullying in the workplace.

"One of the things that is really important when you talk about procedures is to make sure that you’re not erasing any of that documentation," says Ruth McKay, associate professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Cultural change needed

Ultimately, it’s about changing organizational cultures that enable bullying in the workplace.

"In environments where people are bullied, those people (can) also become bullies. So you really want to treat it as an organizational culture phenomenon,” says Ruth Wright, director of leadership and HR research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa. “It’s not just about those one or two individuals who are bad apples that you need to identify and root out of your organization,"

If an organization limits itself to just rooting out those one or two dysfunctional individuals, then it misses the concept of workplace bullying, says McKay.

"It’s a dynamic and it’s shifting all the time."

Just like with sexual harassment, there’s now legislation in place around the issue of bullying, she adds.

"But when you take a look at sexual harassment, that legislation has been in place for over 20 years and we’re still seeing cases coming forward that are hard to comprehend that (they) would slip under the radar,” says McKay.

"And the same is the case for workplace bullying. It is easy to look at as a piece of legislation, but it’s much more difficult to actually implement, put in place and make effective."

Read more:

Conference Board of Canada - Bullying: Moving Out of the Schoolyard and Into the Workplace

Cyberbullying at work