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The cyber bullies are among us: what to do

Release Date

14 February 2014

People who were cyberbullies at school, but who were never held to account for their behaviour, could now be working for your organisation and even in your team.

Susan Mclean, director of Cyber Safety Solutions, is Australia’s leading expert in the area of cyber safety. She told a recent conference that cyber bullying is often perceived to be a unique problem for children and adolescents (ie those who have grown up with modern technology).

In reality, adults are also at risk, workplaces are increasingly a source of cyber bullying, and organisations could be held liable if they don’t put controls in place to protect the mental health of their workers. The potential for co-workers to suffer psychological harm means it is necessary to have clear and concise policies around the appropriate use of information technology, including social media.

McLean defined cyber bullying as repeated unreasonable behaviour involving the misuse of information technology such as emails, mobile phone text messages, social media (eg Facebook and Twitter), instant messaging programs, chat rooms, websites, and even online games.

Victoria’s anti-bullying legislation, known as Brodie’s Law, provides that all forms of serious bullying, including cyber bullying, are crimes punishable by up to ten years in jail. Regardless of whether or not the phrase is used explicitly referenced in state, territory and Commonwealth legislation, Mclean said cyber-bullying is also unlawful in the other jurisdictions, where it is covered by criminal laws, such as those dealing with stalking, intimidation, and the use of carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence.

How to protect your workers

Mclean said social media is a useful communication tool, but organisations need to be aware of the potential for its use by workers, even outside of work hours, to negatively impact the workplace.

She also warned that organisations could be held accountable for bullying carried out by workers on social media, and through other information technology, even if they were carried out without the consent or knowledge of management.

Clear and concise policy

Given that social media use is now so pervasive — and there is also the potential for its misuse — Mclean’s advice was that organisations need a clear and concise policy that protects their workers’ health and safety, as well as their brand and reputation, from the impact of cyber bullying.

She said any policy must link to existing laws which criminalise cyber-bullying and include an easy-to-understand definition of cyber bullying that establishes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

‘You need to spell out the obvious,’ said Mclean.
‘While most people will get that cyber bullying is wrong and the policy will be redundant, you can’t rely on common sense; you’ve got to cater for everyone.’

Mclean said a policy to prevent cyber bullying must also link to other relevant policies in the workplace, identify worker responsibilities, provide for a clear complaints/reporting process, and communicate the consequences of a breach. In addition, the policy must be applied consistently across the entire organisation.

Mclean said it is essential that all workers receive guidance and ongoing education. They need to know what is and is not appropriate to tweet on Twitter or post on Facebook, because their personal use of social media reflects not only themselves professionally but, also, the workplace as a whole.

Mclean said workers should also know how best to respond if they are subject to cyber bullying. If, for example, a worker receives an abusive email in their work account, they should not respond (it will only make the situation worse), but make a copy of it and alert the employer immediately. Meanwhile, a worker who receives an abusive post on Facebook, should take similar steps, but also block the perpetrator, if possible.

Mclean said that if an organisation is subject to a lawsuit involving an allegation of cyber bullying, it will be helpful to their defence if it can be demonstrated they took practicable steps to prevent the conduct.

Challenges for organisations

Mclean said people who engage in cyber-bullying often believe they are doing so anonymously. While people always leave a digital footprint and there are ways of tracing an abusive communication (even if a perpetrator puts controls in place), this could prove challenging. For instance, Mclean said it will be difficult for an organisation to track down someone who has established a fake Facebook account for the purposes of cyber bullying one of its workers.

Mclean said organisations also need to be aware that while serious cases of cyber bullying might warrant police involvement, police can only initiate an investigation into a report of cyber bullying, if the report is made by the recipient. An investigation cannot be initiated based on the report of a third party such as an employer.

Mclean said creating consistency between the state, territory and commonwealth laws criminalising cyber bullying, and ensuring cyber bullying is a specific offence, would be a beneficial initiative — this would send a clear message that this behaviour is a crime and will not to be tolerated. 

James Harkness is a staff writer for WorkplaceOHS and WorkplaceInfo, whose role includes producing case write-ups, news stories, and analysis pieces. He has also produced copy and performed editorial tasks for a handful of business chambers operating in Inner City Sydney.  

For more information on Workplace relations, issues and best practice head to www.workplaceinfo.com.au

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