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Is Cyberbullying in the Workplace on the Rise?

June 2nd, 2020

With the exception of essential workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employees to work from home. It is unclear how long this model will continue, even after the pandemic is over and life slowly begins to go back to normal. According to estimates from Netskope, a cloud security services firm that routes corporate traffic for office workers, 58 percent of white-collar workers in the United States are working from home. While there are many advantages to telecommuting, a growing number of employees reported incidents of cyberbullying. This type of employment discrimination has only recently started to gain attention, but as the number of employees affected by cyberbullying continues to grow, employers have a responsibility to protect them from negative, abusive behavior.

What is Cyberbullying?

Workplace bullying occurs when an individual intentionally intimidates, humiliates, or undermines another employee. In most cases, the victim is bullied by someone who is in a position of power. Unlike aggressive behavior, which usually involves a single act, bullying often becomes a pattern.

Cyberbullying occurs when the aggressor threatens, intimidates, humiliates, or harasses another employee through the use of computers, cellphones, or other electronic devices. It can be particularly traumatic and humiliating for the victim because once the offensive email, text, or comment is sent, it can taunt the victim.

What are the Effects of Cyberbullying?

According to the Dean of the Human Resource Leadership Program at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, cyberbullying has become a serious problem in the workplace because of how easy it is to send offensive messages through cellphones or computers or spread rumors on social media. Being cyberbullied has a variety of effects for the victim. In some cases, it has led to suicide.

While not all victims are driven to suicide, cyberbullying can create an extremely unhealthy work environment. It can cause employees to suffer significant emotional distress, anxiety, and depression. Oftentimes, the victims of cyberbullying are afraid that their complaints will not be taken seriously and that they will have to continue to deal with the problem. This can ultimately lead to diminished performance and reduced productivity in the workplace.

How Should I Respond to Cyberbullying?

There is no place for cyberbullying in the workplace, particularly when comments become threatening or make the victim feel unsafe at work. There are a number of effective ways that employees can handle cyberbullying at work. The following recommendations can help victims of bullying take control of the situation:

  • Do not be quick to react: Avoid responding to the bully, as this may provoke them and make the situation worse. It is best to remain calm or simply walk away. Take the high road and be the bigger person.
  • Avoid involving other people: Report the incident to the appropriate person, but do talk about the bully with other employees, or involve fellow co-workers as this can lead to unwanted drama. Always try to remain as professional as possible.
  • Tell the bully to stop the offensive behavior: Confront the bully calmly and relationally. Tell him or her that the behavior is unacceptable, and it needs to stop.
  • Keep a paper trail: Keep all threatening or offensive comments that were sent. Print them out to establish a timeline of events.
  • Report the cyberbully. Report the behavior to an employer and provide a copy of the evidence. In addition, it is highly recommended to contact the internet service provider. Forward a copy of the emails to them as well so that they can establish a record of abuse.
  • If the cyberbullying becomes threatening, contact the police: Stalking, threats of violence, death threats, and any other behavior that makes one feel unsafe should be reported to the police immediately. It is important to establish a record of abusive behavior.
  • Block the cyberbully: Block the bully from all social networks and personal email accounts.
  • Find support: It is important to have support from friends, family, and other coworkers who may have gone through a similar situation. If necessary, get professional help from a health care professional who has experience with helping victims of cyberbullying.

What Should I Expect from My Employer?

All employers have a responsibility to create a positive and productive work environment. Since cyberbullying is a relatively new problem, particularly as more people are currently working from home, not all employers have digital discrimination policies in place.

However, regardless of whether an employer has those policies in place or not, it should be made very clear that cyberbullying will not be tolerated, and that there will be serious repercussions for employees who engage in any cyberbullying behaviors. The following are examples of steps employers should take to create a positive work environment and protect employees from cyberbullying:

  • Create a clear process for reporting cases of cyberbullying: If an employee claims to have been cyberbullied at work, the employer must respond quickly to the complaint by interviewing witnesses, documenting the offensive or discriminatory comments, and developing clear, effective steps to prevent this type of behavior from continuing. Staff and upper management should be trained on all cyberbullying policies. In some cases, providing an anonymous hotline can be effective for employees who are afraid to file an official complaint. Make sure that cyberbullying victims have access to counseling and stress management programs provided by the company.
  • Policies should be accessible to all employees: If a company’s cyberbullying policy is not accessible, employees are more likely to feel that they are not protected. As a result, the incident continues to go unreported and the bullied employee’s performance and productivity is more likely to deteriorate. The policy should clearly specify that employees must report incidents of cyberbullying to the employee’s direct supervisor, as well as provide an alternative if the supervisor is the bully; this person can be a human resources manager. Additionally, employers can give employees the number to an anonymous hotline.
  • Ensure that all employees comply with anti-bullying policies: Employers have a responsibility to ensure that cyberbullying will not be tolerated and to consistently enforce company policies related to cyberbullying. This includes all employees, regardless of their title, their salary, and how long they have been with the company. If the bully is unwilling to accept the help of an experienced coach who can help him or her overcome their issues and take steps to change, the employee may face disciplinary action, including possible termination.

How Prevalent is Cyberbullying in the Workplace?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, approximately 6.5 million employees reported that they had been affected by bullying in the workplace. Sixty-one percent of survey participants said that their employer did not respond to their cyberbullying report. Instead, the bullied victims either quit, were forced out, or were fired.

According to the report, close to 30 percent of the participants said that they had considered suicide. In response to the rise of cyberbullying in this country, the Healthy Workplace Bill of 2019 was proposed, which would provide legal recourse for victims of cyberbullying, including allowing victims to sue bullies, and holding employers accountable if they do not try to combat the cyberbullying appropriately. Currently, 44 states have criminal sanctions for cyberbullying or electronic harassment.

Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Seek Justice for Victims of Cyberbullying in the Workplace

If you are a victim of cyberbullying in the workplace, contact the Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. This unacceptable behavior should not be tolerated under any circumstances, including in the workplace. Our skilled legal team will protect your rights. For a free consultation, call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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