6 Ways to Combat Cyberbullying and Digital Discrimination in the Workplace

Published by:
Richard Conn
December 10, 2020
min read

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Richard Conn is the Senior Director, Search Marketing for RingCentral, a global leader in unified communications and call center service.

He is passionate about connecting businesses and customers and has experience working with Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Experian, Target, Nordstrom, Kayak, Hilton, and Kia. Richard has written for sites such as VoilaNorbert and Cincopa.

With so many of us working remotely our days are now organised around digital communication. From meeting apps to videoconferencing, it’s how we talk, plan projects and get feedback from both co-workers and managers. But digital channels are also places where employees can publicly criticise or belittle others - even when they’re not at work. 

Cyberbullies can make life miserable for their coworkers by using digital communications to intimidate and control them. As well as being unpleasant for employees, it can have a devastating effect on the workplace environment and on productivity.

Unlike face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying has the potential to extend into the target’s home life. This constant stress can prevent them from relaxing and reduce their ability to cope at work. 

Knowing how to spot and deal with cyberbullying is essential. While every situation is different, knowing in advance how to deal with this issue will help to mitigate things before they escalate. 

Here are six ways to deal with cyberbullying at work. 

1. Establish what comprises ‘workplace bullying’

Bullying is defined as behaviour that causes ‘repeated health harming’ instances in another person. These behaviours include threatening and belittling others, sabotage, and preventing work from being done. Bullying has always existed in the physical work environment - but with the growth in remote working it’s now more likely to take place online. 

According to the US government cyberbullying is ‘bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets.

Workplace bullying includes:

  • Posting or sharing negative, harmful, false or mean content about someone 
  • Offensive emails (sent directly or company wide)
  • Threatening emails
  • Sharing private information that could cause embarrassment
  • Digital discrimination - for instance, when certain people are deliberately left out of virtual meetings or emails for discriminatory or invalid reasons

At its worst, cyberbullying can cross the line into criminal behaviour.

Cyberbullying can be difficult to identify

Cases of cyberbullying can be harder to spot than when employees are in physical situations. For example, victims may be unaware of social posts or messages on sites they don’t use but other colleagues do. They’ll experience the negative effects, but not know where the problem is coming from.

It can also be difficult to tell the difference between what one worker sees as legitimate work practices and an employee perceives to be bullying or discriminatory behaviour. This is particularly relevant when a supervisor or manager is acting as a bully. 

For example it could involve a manager making an ambiguous comment during an online conversation with a colleague along the lines of  “Once again, X still hasn’t sent me those files…” This insinuates that X is either being lazy or non-compliant. If the manager knows that the project hasn’t been completed because X is off work sick then he or she is assigning blame where it isn’t warranted. While not explicit, this could be considered a case of cyberbullying. 

To clarify whether a case of bullying has occurred The National Bullying Helpline suggests that workers ask themselves the following questions:

  • Has another employee posted a comment either directly or indirectly to make me feel intimidated or threatened? 
  • Have I been humiliated or ridiculed online in front of colleagues? 
  • Am I a victim of name-calling?
  • Are my efforts being consistently undervalued or disregarded via online collaboration tools
  • Have I been put under excessive pressure? 
  • Do I feel uncomfortable when working online with certain colleagues or managers?

Both employees and managers need to understand the difference between workplace bullying and performance management. Managers need to understand the need to use effective and constructive management techniques - to provide feedback in a positive rather than wholly negative way. 

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With incidences of cyberbullying and digital discrimination becoming more frequently reported, its essential that companies take things seriously. Organisations need to make employees aware of code of conducts, and what will happen if they breach the rules. And this will require an investment in training. 

Companies are often willing to invest in new technology and solutions, such as marketing automation or workforce optimization tools. However, it’s less likely that they’ll invest in staff training around cyberbullying and digital discrimination.

Training about cyberbullying is an essential investment for all companies. From coaching staff in critical conversation skills to helping them understand how to implement robust conflict management support, training will help employees exhibit positive and respectful interactions with one another.

2. Establish clear reporting procedures

Cyberbullying is just like any other form of bullying. However, reporting and investigating incidents must be done differently.

Companies need to be quick to react to complaints or concerns. There should be a proper process of interviewing witnesses, keeping comprehensive records, and making conclusions. It’s also essential to work out which corrective actions will be taken if a case of cyberbullying has occurred. These policies should also be made public rather than being hidden in an HR directory. 

Certain procedures that can help prevent repeat incidents of cyberbullying include:

  • Providing resources employees can use to report incidents. Having third party communication tools available gives workers an outlet where they will feel safe to report a problem. Employees often feel uncomfortable going to their manager or HR. According to SHRM 57% of alleged misconduct reports are anonymous.

  • Enabling individuals to report cyberbullying incidents regardless of who is involved (whether that be HR, management or team leaders) is vital in remote working situations. This is because employees may feel disconnected from co-workers and less comfortable reporting directly to colleagues.

  • Education. We know staff need technical training - call centre agents need to know ‘what is a virtual phone service?’ before they can perform their job adequately, while factory workers need to understand the machines they’re using. It’s just as important is to train staff on how to recognise cyberbullying and digital discrimination - as well as how to respond.

  • Encouraging employees to keep emails and social posts they think amount to bullying - as well as recordings of virtual meetings where bullying behaviours are apparent. Ideally, all meetings should be recorded so as to avoid putting the onus on the bullied staff member.

  • Making sure employees know their rights about use of their personal information. A bully who posts personal details could be breaking defamation, data protection or privacy laws.
  • Asking employees to take notes of incidents that happen offline that tie in to emails or posts e.g. emails relating to them being overlooked for a promotion.

When it comes to setting policies (whether they be for unbiased hiring procedures, training, or cyberbullying) clarity is key. There should be no confusion over what’s considered unacceptable behaviour. 

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Inducting new staff offers useful opportunities for them to ask questions around the technologies they will be using. As well as being able to answer basics like ‘What is web conferencing?’, you should be able to answer any questions they have about discrimination policies.

Training for new staff, and continuous development for existing staff should always include sessions about your cyberbullying policies, as well as your expectations regarding behaviour.

3. Don’t play the blame game

Never respond to a reported incidence of workplace bullying with incredulity or doubt. This will only make things worse. It’s important to follow your laid out procedures to protect those that report the bullying behaviours of others. 

That said, as we noted earlier, while bullies are usually intentional in their behaviours, some individuals may not realise the effect their words or actions are having on others. 

For example a manager with a singular focus on hitting high goals may have what they consider to be a direct no-nonsense approach when it comes to dealing with team members. This could come across as aggressive, disrespectful or bullying to others. 

This is where HR can intervene and point out how these behaviours may be misconstrued. HR’s role is about far more than using HR software to streamline the selection process at a company. They’re there to provide coaching and counselling with the aim of improving communication between different employees in an organisation. 

The response to a bully’s behaviour, where down to lack of personal awareness, or even where they’ve demonstrated implicit or unconscious bias, should be to avoid apportioning blame. Instead, focus on redirecting their behaviours to ensure a happier working environment. It’s vital to keep a record of these incidences however, as if they’re flagged up again it may be a more deliberate issue.

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Don’t shame whistleblowers

It’s also possible that the person reporting the bullying goes on to experience significant blame in the eye of others - even though this may be subtle. Their projects may get delayed without due reason, and careers can falter if others see them as ‘troublemakers’ and people to be avoided. 

This can have a knock on effect in terms of deterring other employees from reporting incidents. Instead of allowing this kind of blaming culture to exist, you should keep the focus on improving workplace productivity. Communicate that workplace bullying is detrimental to the company as a whole in terms of stopping everyone from performing at their best.

It’s essential to put procedures into place to ensure a fair reporting structure, and avoid jumping to conclusions without fairly assessing the situation. Reporting should also be a private process, in order to avoid the rest of the office drawing their own conclusions.

4. Workplace bullying must have repercussions

It’s crucial to create visible repercussions for bullies and thereby keep valuable employees happy. This will not only protect victims but help prevent further incidents of bullying from occurring. To do this:

  • Create formal steps that will confront the bully and educate the workforce about what’s expected from them, conduct-wise. 
  • Work with individuals with the aim of retraining their behaviours.  
  • Implement disciplinary measures - if necessary they will need to be removed from the workplace.
  • Make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated. This needs to apply to everyone, including staff with friends or family in top management and talented employees with specialised skills or high value to the company.

5. Demonstrate commitment

Managers and leaders have to act as role models in order to nurture a healthy remote work environment. Employees look to managers to see what’s expected of them and what will not be tolerated. 

Policies need to be enforced consistently across the company, and workers need to feel the organisation is committed to their safety and wellbeing when it comes to cyberbullying. While it’s impossible to monitor every call or private message, managers should make it their job to monitor public channels of communication and address every disrespectful video conference comment. 

By taking each and every complaint seriously they are demonstrating their commitment to stamping out cyberbullying. It’s important that everyone is treated equally - if a certain talented employee has a habit of acting inappropriately it shouldn’t be explained away as ‘that’s just the way they are”.

6. Focus on moving forward 

It’s sad but true that most of us will experience some form of workplace bullying during our careers. However incidences can be mitigated by focusing on education. By creating training schemes and coaching individuals companies can ensure everyone has cyberbullying on their radar. It’s also essential to make it clear that it’s everyone’s responsibility to eliminate bullying from the workplace. 

By concentrating on ‘bystander training’ you can help staff see the role they can play and their options for standing up to bullies by stepping in rather than keeping quiet. 

This type of education will help staff understand how to act and teach them emotional intelligence (EQ). And this extra EQ will help managers and coworkers create viable alternatives for expressing problems - and help keep a lid on cyberbullying. 

Workplace bullying - whether face-to-face or online - can cause great amounts of stress, as well as damaging the self-esteem and health of the person bullied. This is not only calamitous for the individual involved but on the productivity and culture of the company itself. 

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Cyberbullying creates a negative work environment where witnesses to workplace bullying fear becoming targets themselves. This disempowers employees and leads to low morale. When it comes to counting the costs, organisations not only need to take into account their overheads like the VoIP service cost or office rent - but the costs to the company, productivity-wise, from cyberbullying. 

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