Cyber Bullying and Cyber Stalking in the Workplace
Part Two: what it is and how to prevent it
There's been a recent movement, or rather a series of movements, recognizing cyberbullying as a widespread and serious enough problem to warrant legislation. U.S. code title 18 § 875, for instance, makes it illegal to make threats through the internet, although there are no federal laws that specifically address the problem of online harassment.
In addition, there are state laws that go even further, particularly for the purpose of protecting schoolchildren whose classmates bully them online. California law, in a bill passed back in 2008, even allows school administrators to punish students who harass others online; a notable extension of administrative reach to outside school grounds. But cyber bullying on the job is still a definite gray area. As difficult as it can be to separate in-person bullying from workplace harassment, it is even more difficult to draw a hard line where online interactions are concerned. Where similar behaviors apply, at least there a distinction can be made.
For instance, threats and attempts at intimidation made through social media or emails tend to be similar to intimidation and retaliation in the workplace. I.e., sending a work e-mail that contains statements of an unwanted sexual nature is still a clear instance of sexual harassment.
But does it count as work harassment when a colleague sends a threatening email from his personal account to your personal account? You can see how the argument could be made that it's not a workplace issue, and therefore out of company hands. Say, for instance, that a co-worker makes nasty comments on your Facebook page. Is this something worth bringing to a manager or to HR? After all, if it happens off of company property and company time, then is it really a work problem? The problem becomes even more tricky when you consider that Facebook is a very public place. Most Facebook users have their profile set to public, so that even strangers can see it and make comments.
This is where it becomes a matter of your good judgment. In a perfect world all complaints of bullying and harassment would be taken seriously by the boss and by HR, and that would be that. But the truth is that your HR department exists to protect the company from its employees, not to protect you from your co-workers, and certainly not from your supervisors. So there's a lot that you have to do on your own to recognize, document, and report online harassment.
One of the most widespread methods of online harassment is "doxing" or revealing private documents (hence "dox") publicly online. In general, this not something you have to worry about coming from other employees. Doxing is more a favorite of internet trolls and would-be keyboard vigilantes.
Still, if you have a supervisor or a co-worker posting private information about you in a public place, then you have a serious problem. The first step is documentation. If you're receiving harassing emails, then you should make sure to save them somewhere offline (particularly if the offensive emails are coming over a work server).
If someone is disparaging you on social media, then you need to take screenshots and have them ready to show when you make your HR complaint. (Just so you know, the keyboard shortcut for screenshots is 'alt + PrtScn' on windows, and 'cmd + shift + 3' on a mac.)
Depending on the type and severity of the harassment, the next step will be to contact your bully directly. Now this bit of advice comes with a weighty caveat; most importantly, if someone is clearly threatening you, then they are already beyond reason and you need to make an HR complaint and consider contacting a knowledgeable employment lawyer.
But if the bullying behavior is of a more ambiguous nature, then there is still a significant chance that your bully doesn't know that they've crossed a line. It can be easy to cross lines these days because the line between what's personal and what's private, what's business and what's pleasure, can be so blurry. A great number of bullies will respond to a firm, no-nonsense email clearly stating your displeasure with their behavior.
If the behavior persists and, again, depending on the severity, sometimes right away— you should speak with your supervisor, and inform them of the situation, again, clearly stating how and why the behavior is inappropriate. Also inform them of your intention to make a complaint with company HR, which is your next step.
Even if you think speaking with the bully and your manager will fix the problem it is usually in your best interest to make a formal complaint to HR, even if it's just to have an official written record of the event. Remember to bring the saved evidence of the bullying with you when making the complaint, and make sure to inform them of the steps you've already taken to address the problem. If the online bullying qualifies, legally, as harassment and you are planning on filing a legal complaint, you should still go through all the company channels available to you to address the problem. California labor law requires you to exhaust internal measures for redress anyway, and it will make your case easier to have a company record of the complaint.
Everyone has to work, most of spend a minimum of 40 hrs. there every work, so there's no reason that a bullying supervisor or co-worker should make work miserable. So we hope you take this advice to heart and have learned a little about the options available to you. For more information, please visit: Stop Bullying.gov
Workplace Bullying.org or Speak with an attorney