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Employment law

Online bullying in the workplace

Cyberbullying in the workplace is becoming a more prominent issue as many UK employees continue to work remotely. Follow our guidance on how you can spot and stop unpleasant behaviour online.

11 May 2021

Business woman having a video call with co-worker, working online from home at cosy atmosphere. Concept of remote work from home.

What is cyberbullying?

ACAS’s definition of bullying in the workplace states that “bullying is behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable”. Bullying in the workplace can be a misuse of power that can be offensive and intimidating towards a person, making them feel humiliated, threatened and vulnerable.

Put simply, cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices. The scope of digital communication now available to us means this type of bullying can take place in many forms.

As many workers in the UK remain in remote working environments, it’s unsurprising that bullying in the workplace has found a new home online. Prior to COVID-19, offensive behaviour was already a prominent issue in office environments as CIPD reports that employees are twice as likely to have experienced bullying than harassment at work over the past three years.

With online working environments having become a natural part of many people’s lives, cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent, leaving employees with unclear information on how this can be identified and tackled appropriately.

Why is cyberbullying at work a growing issue?

The rapid transfer to online working in March 2020, forced many businesses to enter unchartered territory. With HR’s focus assigned to support the business moving into a remote working environment, considering what impact this may have for employees remained as an afterthought for some organisations. Due to this, monitoring online conversations on designated work equipment and policies of how to report instances of cyberbullying still remain unclear in some businesses, leaving cyberbullying to flourish.

Cyberbullying is also more difficult to spot than public displays of bullying in the office. Whilst some may be aware as to when they are a victim of face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying can be harder to distinguish as communications are often misread as offensive or rude without the intention of being so. Conversations online or over the phone are often private and on a one-to-one basis, making any behaviour associated with bullying unknown to others.

It is also possible that communications which constitute bullying may also be more prevalent as people often feel more comfortable displaying unpleasant behaviour when hiding behind a screen.

What constitutes cyberbullying in the workplace?

Whilst the obvious offensive remarks may be easier to classify as cyberbullying in the workplace, many employees are unaware of other more subtle behaviours which could also be classed as cyberbullying.

The impact of COVID-19 and remote working environments may leave employers lacking trust in their workers to successfully manage their workload from home. Without being able to monitor their efforts fully, managers may feel more obliged to continuously check up on their team which, when persistent, can leave employees feeling that they’re being constantly monitored. Extensive monitoring can be demotivating and unpleasant and can be recognised as a form of cyberbullying.

This lack of trust can also lead to micro-management. This commonly occurs when employees feel constantly controlled or reminded of their workloads. This can often leave employees with overriding stress and feel that they’re not trusted to be capable of completing tasks independently.

A more obvious form of workplace cyberbullying is the common exclusion from online meetings where your input may be useful. If someone repeatedly leaves you out of important conversations, you may feel your voice is not wanted and in the worst circumstances that you are being managed out of the organisation.

Other behaviour that constitutes cyberbullying can be similar to workplace bullying examples that are experienced in-person, such as being the subject of malicious gossip, being extensively criticised, or receiving offensive remarks over video call, email, or on the phone.

What can your employer do to help you?

As with any form of bullying, your employer should have an anti-bullying policy in place to offer guidance on what constitutes as unacceptable behaviour and how you can go about reporting this. Following these instructions are an appropriate first step alongside consulting someone of authority, such as your line manager, for support.

Employers have a duty to take any bullying allegations seriously, whether online or offline. Many of these situations are usually resolved informally after investigation. If your issue cannot be resolved through this method, you may need to follow your employer’s formal grievance procedure and seek legal advice.

If your employer doesn’t fulfil their duty and is unwilling or unable to bring bullying in the workplace to an end, you should speak to an experienced employment solicitor as soon as possible. If the bullying relates to discrimination or you have suffered the treatment as a result of being a whistleblower, employment tribunals require you to take legal action within three months of the last act of abusive treatment in the case of discrimination or detriment that you have suffered as a result of whistleblowing, so it’s important you act fast in these cases.

If you think you might have a case for constructive dismissal it is also important to act quickly so as not to be seen to having affirmed your contract and waived your rights. It is best to seek legal advice before resigning.

Speak to an expert employment solicitor for workplace cyberbullying advice by calling us on 0330 041 5869 or contact us and we’ll call you.

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