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How can employers manage cyberbullying in the workplace?

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When operating a business, at some point you may be faced with issues of bullying or harassment between colleagues. With the advent of social media, employers now have to be vigilant against the threat of cyberbullying as well. To deal with cyberbullying, you should make sure that you have comprehensive policies to prevent it, as well as clear and consistent consequences if it occurs. In this article, our Employment team explain how to manage cyberbullying in the workplace, as well as what constitutes cyberbullying and what risks are involved if you fail to deal with it correctly.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is bullying, harassment or victimisation that takes place on blogs, email or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Similar to other forms of workplace harassment and victimisation, it can have a negative impact on businesses by leading to poor morale and performance, continuing staff absence and a loss in productivity. The working environment should be supportive, where everyone can work free from undue pressure or negative attention. Whether it's a manager singling out one employee to criticise on Facebook, an employee spreading rumours online or taking an embarrassing photo or video and sharing it without permission, you have a duty of care to your employees which means that you must take reasonable steps to prevent bullying and harassment.

According to a survey conducted by the CIPD in association with Ipsos MORI and Kingston Business School, cyberbullying in the workplace is increasing. Women are more likely to be the victims of cyberbullying than men, line managers are the most common instigators, and the most common sources of cyberbullying are Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

How do I manage cyberbullying as an employer?

You should introduce a zero-tolerance approach towards any sort of bullying, across all areas of the business and enforce it through all levels of management.

You should ensure that you have policies covering the following;

  • emails,
  • using the internet,
  • mobile phone usage,
  • bullying and harassment,
  • data protection,
  • disciplinary and grievance,
  • dignity and respect and,
  • equal opportunities.

The bullying and harassment policy should be widened to prohibit cyberbullying of staff both inside and outside the workplace, and should be consistently enforced.

You should provide training on what is and isn’t permitted on social media, with workers being told what would constitute misconduct and the applicable sanctions for misconduct. Workers should also be advised to avoid expressing personal views about the business or colleagues on their social media profiles.

You are permitted to check emails and social networking sites if an employee reports instances of cyberbullying. You must however tell the employees that they are being watched, and you must determine correctly that your reasons are justified under data protection laws.

What can happen if I don’t deal with cyberbullying correctly?

Workers with a protected characteristic who are harassed online are protected by The Equality Act 2010, which defines harassment as “unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual”. This means that they can bring a claim for harassment and discrimination under the act, which has an uncapped amount of compensation.

If your employee does not have a protected characteristic, a failure to protect workers from cyberbullying can leave you vicariously liable for your worker’s actions under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. It is possible the harassment could be a criminal offence that you may be liable for. If the employee has raised this to you, they may be protected under whistleblowing legislation also. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also requires you to provide a safe place of work for all workers.

In Otomewo v Carphone Warehouse Ltd, Carphone Warehouse was found to be vicariously liable for the actions of two employees. The employees took their manager’s mobile phone and posted to Facebook stating: “Finally came out of the closet. I am gay and proud.”

In Teggart v TeleTech UK Ltd, an employee was dismissed for posting offensive comments about a colleague even though the posts were made outside of working hours and on a home computer. The Employment Tribunal agreed that the employee had breached the employer’s dignity at work policy as the comments related to an employee of the company and affected the workplace environment.

As previously mentioned and aside from the legal implications, if left unchecked or handled badly, cyberbullying can create other problems for organisations, including:

  • poor morale and poor employee relations,
  • poor performance / lost productivity,
  • absence /resignations and,
  • loss of respect for managers and supervisors.

With the topics of mental ill health in the workplace and poor work-life balance becoming more popular recently, having an inclusive and accepting atmosphere at work is becoming increasingly more important. By having the necessary procedures and protocols in place, you can ensure that your employees will have the peace of mind that should any issues arise, they will be handled appropriately.

Through our Peace of Mind package, the Employment team can review your staff handbooks and contracts to include the relevant policies and clauses discussed in this article. To find out more about Peace of Mind, click here.  We also offer bespoke Employment Law training, during which we can present on topics such as bullying and harassment, disciplinary and grievance proceedings and social media and online ownership. Click here for more information.

Alternatively, you can contact the Employment team today on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.