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Free EnquiryBullying In The Workplace

Cyber-bullying the new workplace problem

Bullying in the workplace has been defined by the conciliatory service ACAS as actions 'characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate of injure the recipient'. While most people think that this definition just refers to physical or verbal bullying, the development of emails and other forms of electronic communication in the workplace have brought a new but equally sinister aspect to the problem of workplace intimidation. Cyber-bullying.

What is cyber-bullying?

Emails and mobile phone texts have made it easy for people to communicate 24/7, whether an employee is at work or not. But whereas physical or verbal bullying is distinguished by the fact that it involves direct, physical proximity and often confrontation, the cyber-bully can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Sending threatening or intimidating emails, texts or even 'Twitters' or posting on a public forum such as Facebook, can be constituted as bullying behaviour and therefore just as damaging to the recipient as physical or verbal abuse.

Since 2006, UK discrimination law has made it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of a variety of reasons including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, age and disability. There is also protection to prevent employees being harassed on the grounds of their affiliation or otherwise to a trade union. All of this legislation has made workplaces more secure against bullying or harassment, but the Internet and texting gives bullies a chance to circumvent the usual self-regulation that happens within the workplace. However, this belief that the Internet also transcends the law is false. The same laws that govern workplace physical and verbal bullying also cover cyber-bullying. And this time, there's actual, physical evidence of the crime in the form of the emails themselves.

What to do if you're being cyber-bullied

If an employee feels that they are under attack from a cyber-bully, the first thing to do is to notify the employer. Companies that monitor employees' internet and email use to reduce the risk of cyber-bullying should ensure that they comply with their obligations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998, and the Telecommunications Regulations 2000. Most companies have strict policies on email content, and emails containing abusive, sexual or profane content will in many cases be a cause for instant dismissal. Rather than deleting any email that contains detrimental content (as is probably the first instinctive reaction), the material needs to be retained as evidence of the bullying. Most companies' IT departments should be able to locate the source of any email relatively easily, so the culprit, if they are a work colleague, can often be quite easily caught.

The grey area comes in the language used in cyber-bullying. An obvious threat, abusive language or sexually explicit and violent language is clear-cut and a criminal offence, but cyber-bullies often use more subtle techniques to intimidate work colleagues. It is here that accusations of cyber-bullying can become difficult to reconcile.

Employers must make sure that they have up-to-date, effective IT policies which set out clear guidelines for the use of all electronic communications equipment to conduct correspondence and the consequences for non-compliance. Disciplinary policies should make it clear that cyber-bullying may constitute gross misconduct, and could result in summary dismissal.

An employee cannot make a complaint to an employment tribunal on the grounds of cyber-bullying alone. However, if the cyber-bullying relates to their sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion, they may be able to bring a claim for discrimination and/or harassment. In serious cases, employees may choose to resign and bring a claim for constructive dismissal.

It is crucial that employers take appropriate action to deal with cyber-bullying and treat it as seriously as face-to-face workplace bullying. The employer's duty of care to their staff beholds them to ensure that destructive behaviour such as cyber-bullying does not make it impossible for an employee to feel safe or able to continue working in that environment. Cyber-bullying is as serious an issue as any other form of workplace intimidation and must be treated so.

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