Cyber-bullying plagues workplace

Tasty? Perhaps, but would it be worth your job?
Tasty? Perhaps, but would it be worth your job?

Lack of media coverage is not to say that cyber-bullying in the workplace is not a problem, or that it’s not causing damage to businesses and employees alike. One incident that did make it into the national papers was the ‘sandwich email war’, which took place at the prestigious Australisian legal firm, Allens Arthur Robinson, in Sydney. In this incident, an internal company email was sent enquiring over the whereabouts of a missing sandwich. The email exchange quickly became heated – and abusive – when a colleague responded sarcastically.

The email spat amused fellow staff, who began to forward the exchange on to other colleagues and contacts at rival law firms. The incident resulted in both ‘sandwich email offenders’ being fired. This episode is one of the more comical examples (although not for those involved) of cyber-bullying in the workplace.

“Cyber-bullying is just a real-time, modern way of delivering abuse”, says David Simpson, managing director of CQR Consulting, who are responsible for Disconnect, an anti-cyber-bullying campaign. “Cyber-bullies use anonymity as a weapon, without fear of retribution or punishment. HR departments are struggling to deal with it”, he explains.

Beyond the obvious emotional and psychological repercussions that cyber-bullying causes, it is also a risk to company reputation, Simpson points out. “If unprofessional behaviour and exchanges are leaked outside of the company, competitive firms use it as industrious espionage – they see cyber-bullying as a tool to damage their rival firm’s credibility.”

Although email is the oldest vector for cyber-bullying, methods also include texting, phone calls, and the more recent primary vehicle for disseminating malicious information – social networking sites. “People publish information on Facebook and Twitter without thinking about it”, says Simpson. “It’s often forgotten that you can’t control social networking distribution, and once you’ve made a comment online, you can’t take it back”.

A thin line

“There is a thin line between office banter and cyber-bullying”, Simpson admits. “It becomes bullying when the insults hit a nerve.” Dangerously, tone can often be mistaken when communicating online, which sometimes leads to unintentional bullying.

“The solution lies with people. It’s important to make people understand that this problem exists”, he adds. “Social networking tools are great, and they are there to be used, but like all technology, there’s a sting in the tail. Employees must act socially responsible online, and take their company into account.”

It’s essential that organisations include social networking guidance in their security policy, and build it into employee inductions. “Update your policy! More often than not, policies don’t keep up with the technology”, Simpson advises. “Ultimately, it’s a people issue. There’s nothing wrong with the technology – just the people using it”, Simpson insists. Managers, he contends, “are very important in the education process, because managers are often culprits of cyber-bullying”.

Cyber-bullying in schools

Disconnect was initiated by Simpson and his colleagues at CQR Consulting to advise and educate school children, their parents, and their teachers in Australia about cyber-bullying.

“Schools are conscious that cyber-bullying is a problem, and are eager to make students aware of how to use technology safely at home”.

In Australia there is strong support from both state and federal level government, which has made the issue of cyber-bullying a high-profile one as a result of media campaigns.

The Disconnect project produces and distributes advisory literature for parents, children, and teachers, and offers separate educational workshops in schools for pupils, their parents and teachers. “We use young staff for these presentations, so that the children can relate to them, and have a ‘no suit’ policy for presenting.”

As a result of increased awareness, Simpson says that schools are getting better at handling cyber-bullying once identified.

“Disconnect is a free programme, which we see as our social responsibility. We’re keen to protect children, and are happy to do that for free. The minister for education attended some of our school workshops, and asked us to participate in their wider government programme.” As a result of the partnership with the Australian government, Disconnect received a lot of media promotion, and are pleased to get their message out there.


Facebook and other social networking sites have started to take their privacy settings and anti-bullying measures more seriously in recent times, as awareness of the problem grows. “Social networking sites get a lot of bad press and as a result, reputations are starting to suffer”, says Simpson. “They need their site to be trusted and desirable in order to remain ‘the site of choice’, so it’s important that they take security and privacy into account.

While Simpson expresses regret that the sites make the changes as a result of their desire to be popular rather than to be socially responsible, he agrees that “either way, the end result is the same”.

CQR Consulting is looking to collaborate with the UK government to introduce the Disconnect campaign into the UK.

Examples of office cyber-bullying getting out of control

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