April 9th, 2013
HRE: Cyberbullies Lurking in the Workplace
By Larry Keller, Human Resources Executive, Nov. 21, 2012
Researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom have released results of three separate surveys of employees questioned at several universities which find that about 80 percent of the 320 respondents said they had experienced work-related cyberbullying at least once in the previous six months, and 14 to 20 percent of them said this happened to them at least once a week.
The findings have serious implications for HR professionals. Cyberbullying can result in lower employee morale, higher turnover and absenteeism, and damage to a company’s reputation if the practice is visible to a vast audience on the Internet, the researchers say. It also raises questions as to whether existing HR policies adequately address the behavior.
“A key issue . . . is to raise awareness of the impact of cyberbehavior — to prevent it [from] happening — or escalating,” says Carolyn Axtell, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology and one of the authors of the study. “Due to the lack of social and physical cues online, people are less aware, and therefore less considerate about the other person’s reaction. Organizations could . . . set norms and expectations about online behavior — what is considered acceptable and what isn’t.”
Many do not, however. New York-based Proskauer recently released its second annual worldwide survey of social media in the workplace and found that 69 percent of nearly 250 multinational businesses had social-media policies, but only one-third of them provided training in the appropriate use of social media. The survey didn’t address how many of those social-media policies specifically include cyberbullying.
“Businesses are grappling with a medium that encourages informal and irreverent communications that are essentially permanent and have the potential to spread like wildfire,” the report states.
But workplace cyberbullying hasn’t been a hot topic among Society for Human Resource Management members who call the organization’s Knowledge Center for advice, says Margaret Fiester, the center’s operations manager. “It doesn’t seem to be on people’s radar here,” she says. …
Bennet Alsher, a partner with FordHarrison, an Atlanta-based labor and employment law firm, says employers can incorporate cyberbullying in their social-media policies — if they have one — and have a separate harassment policy that references the social-media rules. Social-media complaints are tricky, however, as employers have to be responsive to employee complaints while also being careful not to violate their privacy rights, he says.
“It’s really quite a conundrum for employers,” he adds.
Overly broad language in a social media policy can put it at odds with the National Labor Relations Act, Alsher warns. But, doing nothing is not an option, because employers are required to promptly and effectively respond to harassing behavior. …
There is agreement that HR executives should have an employee education and awareness program explaining what sorts of social media communications are inappropriate, and proceed carefully when they receive a cyberbullying complaint.
“I think the key is to start out with an effective, well-crafted social media policy,” Alsher says. “Evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis. Get the facts. Do your due diligence. Don’t rush to judgment. Get legal advice.”
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