In this blog, Dr Samuel Farley, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Leeds University Business School discusses the causes, consequences, and actions to identify and prevent cyberbullying at work.

The problem of bullying has always existed in workplaces. Some people are naturally more socially dominant than others, which may predispose them to act aggressively. More often, bullying is an unfortunate by-product of stressful work environments, where it is seen as a way of retaining control or coping with unrelenting demands. Traditionally, bullying was enacted face-to-face within a physical work setting, however developments in technology have seen it occur via email, text messages and video conferencing (as Jackie Weaver, heroin of the infamous Handforth parish council meeting can attest).

Bullying via technology, also known as ‘cyberbullying’, is a peculiar problem for organisations. It can be very subtle, as online communication is more ambiguous than traditional bullying and can be open to multiple interpretations. As a result, perpetrators may be able to defend themselves more easily by denying ill-intent, or by suggesting that targets are being oversensitive. There can also be confusion regarding whether organisations can intervene to address cyberbullying that takes place in non-work time on non-work media. Moreover, in organisations where virtual working practices are less established, norms regarding acceptable ‘netiquette’ may not have been developed, which could lead people to perceive mistreatment in the absence of malicious intent.

Although cyberbullying can be complex, solutions to the problem are more necessary than ever before. COVID-19 has seen a dramatic upturn in the number of employees working from home and communicating with colleagues online. Research undertaken during the pandemic has shown that experiencing cyberbullying increases stress, which in turn reduces productivity (1). Other research has shown that cyberbullying was associated with increased alcohol consumption during the COVID outbreak (2). These findings highlight how cyberbullying can make an already stressful situation much worse, which raises the question of how to prevent its ill-effects.

There has been little formal study on how to prevent cyberbullying, but findings from the broader mistreatment literature provide some helpful insights on how it might be limited, these include:

  1. Developing a formal bullying policy: this sends a message to employees that the organisation does not tolerate or condone bullying of any kind, including cyberbullying.
  2. Clarifying what constitutes acceptable netiquette: each organisation is different and even within organisations there can be great variety regarding preferred methods of online working. Leaders have a role to play a role in establishing expectations for online communication within their teams. For example, when is it too late to ring a colleague? How quickly do emails need to be responded to? Do I need to keep my camera on during the entire Zoom meeting? Establishing shared norms regarding netiquette may not prevent cyberbullying altogether, but it may prevent colleagues becoming unduly irritated with one another.
  3. Establishing a climate where conflicts can be aired and resolved. Research has found that when employees share a belief that their organisation will manage conflicts fairly, the impact of bullying is less severe (3). To establish a conflict management climate, organisations should develop clear procedures for who to contact if there is a dispute, as well as procedures for how the dispute will be managed. Managers, human resources personnel and health and safety representative should also be trained in how to manage conflict effectively.  

If targeted by cyberbullying it may be useful to keep a record of the events, including dates and times that incidents occurred. In the past, records have been used to resolve cyberbullying complaints (4). Social support is also beneficial to targets of bullying, particularly when finding a resolution to bullying incidents is proving difficult.    

Dr Samuel Farley is a Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Leeds University Business School.

For more on the evidence behind this blog, check out:

1. Sawhney, G., & McCord, M. The Effect of Cyberbullying on Stress and Productivity of Remote Employees During COVID-19.

2. Oksanen, A., Savolainen, I., Savela, N., & Oksa, R. (2020). Psychological Stressors Predicting Increased Drinking During the COVID-19 Crisis: A Longitudinal National Survey Study of Workers in Finland. Alcohol and Alcoholism.

3. Einarsen, S., Skogstad, A., Rørvik, E., Lande, Å. B., & Nielsen, M. B. (2018). Climate for conflict management, exposure to workplace bullying and work engagement: a moderated mediation analysis. The International Journal of Human Resource Management29(3), 549-570.

4. D’cruz, P., & Noronha, E. (2013). Navigating the extended reach: Target experiences of cyberbullying at work. Information and Organization, 23(4), 324-343.