What HR Can Do About Cyberbullying in the Workplace

By Aliah D. Wright May 13, 2016
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Last month’s discovery of the body of a 31-year-old firefighter in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park after a near week-long search led to the determination that she had committed suicide and that she had been the victim of cyberbullying—likely by her co-workers—for years.


Photo courtesy 'Celebrating Nicole' Facebook page.

An investigation into the anonymous online postings, in which the Fairfax County, Va., firefighter was called derogatory names, is now underway.

Nicole Mittendorff's supervisors said they were unaware if her co-workers were bullying her on an online community forum. Her supervisors have not said whether she was bullied in person at work.

“Cyberbullying is bullying behavior in the form of intimidation, threats, humiliation and harassment that takes place through the use of computers, cellphones or other electronic devices,” said Teresa Daniel, dean of the Human Resource Leadership Program at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., in an interview with SHRM Online.

“The idea to trash people we don’t particularly like is not new, but cellphones, computers and social media make it so much easier to inflict widespread damage through the spread of rumors, outright lies or compromising photos,” said Daniel, who is also an attorney and the co-author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal & Risk Management Professionals, Second Edition (SHRM, 2016), with Gary S. Metcalf. “It is hard to imagine that working adults operate this way, but with the growing use of technology and social media, the sad reality is that the problem does exist and is only likely to get worse unless American organizations get serious about dealing with the problem at work,” Daniel said.

Bully Legislation Pending

Daniel is an advocate of the Healthy Workplace Bill, proposed state legislation which would, among other things, provide “an avenue for legal redress for health-harming cruelty at work; allow people to individually sue bullies; hold employers accountable for bullying and compel employers to prevent and correct future instances of bullying,” according to a website promoting the bill.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC), 25 states currently have laws against cyberbullying and three have proposed legislation that would make it illegal.

The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey found that 6.5 million workers said they were affected by bullying in the workplace. Sixty-one percent of respondents said their employer failed to react to abusive conduct. As a result, the bullying stopped once those targeted either quit, were forced out or were fired. Twenty-nine percent reported that they contemplated suicide.

Bullying can lead to more than the loss of a job. People experience neurological changes when they’re bullied at work, said Robyn Bartlett, a crisis transition coach and founder and CEO of Life Transition Experts in an interview with SHRM Online. And she and other experts say bullying hurts a business as well.

“While I have not yet seen any stand-alone statistics about the costs of adult cyberbullying, bullying in the aggregate results in lost productivity, increased absences, higher turnover and increased medical costs due to the increased stress at work,” Daniel said. “It is a form of psychological violence that can and does seriously damage the health and well-being of affected employees. It can also poison an organization by undermining employee morale and by eroding any sense of loyalty, trust or teamwork.”

In 2008, the American Psychological Association estimated that U.S. businesses lose a staggering $300 billion per year due to incidences of workplace bullying, Daniel added. More recently, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that one-third of American workers suffer from chronic stress and estimated that the number of workdays lost to mental-health-related absences adds up to $27 billion each year. “Either way you look at it, it’s a big number that is impacting U.S. businesses negatively—and on a significant scale,” Daniel said.

What Can HR Do?

Experts say there is no one approach to ending or preventing cyberbullying. The most promising strategies generally fall into four major categories:

  1. Changes to the organization and its culture. 
  2. Strategies to help strengthen individual managers and leaders. 
  3. Support services for the targets of bullying. 
  4. Accountability measures to coach, counsel and discipline bullies.

“HR is usually the first point of contact for a complaint of bullying, and it is important for HR to help targets strategize about how to handle the bully’s negative behavior and guide them to available resources,” Daniel said.

Employees “need clear policies about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior,” Bartlett added. “Educate and train staff and upper management,” about bullying and cyberbullying.

And when there is a bullying issue in the workplace: “In addition to taking steps to investigate and resolve the problem, [offer the person who is the target of the bullying] help with coping and stress management strategies; support via the company’s employee assistance program; and access to counseling, coaching and employee benefits,” Daniel said.

As for the bully, it’s important for HR and the employee’s manager to intervene early.

“With the help of an experienced coach, the research evidence suggests that is possible for abrasive [individuals] to overcome their personal limitations or blind spots—if they are personally willing to accept the fact that they need to change. However, when coaching and confronting the bully fail to change that person’s behavior, it is critical for the organization to ensure that the bully is held accountable for his or her misconduct and disciplined according to the organization’s policies,” Daniel said.

That may include termination.

To help prevent these situations from occurring, “Be proactive and ensure that there are clear policies in place to protect employees from bullying. But most importantly, if an employee comes to you with a complaint, listen carefully, take it seriously, and investigate the situation quickly and thoroughly,” Daniel said.

“One person really can make a difference. Be that person.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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