Q: I am worried that one of my employees is being cyber bullied by another employee at work. What can I do to stop it?
A: Cyberbullying, or bullying online, is harder to identify and tackle in the workplace than ‘normal’ bullying. This is because it does not take place in the open and may be hidden away on platforms the employer does not have access to.
Common forms of cyberbullying include being the recipient of offensive emails or text messages, or being gossiped about on social media.
As there is currently only a suspicion that cyberbullying is taking place, this needs to be further explored. As an initial step, the employee can be invited to an informal discussion and asked whether they are facing any difficult issues at work. This should be a supportive meeting, at which the employee is informed that they are not in any trouble and are made aware of how to report incidents of bullying and the importance of this. The employer can reassure the employee that all reports will be taken seriously and fully addressed.
Where the employee raises their concerns, a prompt investigation needs to be carried out. As part of this, the employer might need to monitor the alleged perpetrator’s electronic activity, such as accessing their sent emails to get evidence of the bullying content. In order to avoid breaching the employee’s right to privacy, they should be informed about the monitoring in advance.
This will usually be through a monitoring policy or a specific clause in the internet and email policy.
Where the employee has not been informed that monitoring is taking place, the employer should consider an alternative way of accessing this information.
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the employer needs to decide whether there is sufficient information to take the accused employee through a disciplinary process.
The steps the employer needs to take, and the consequences of bullying, are likely to be covered by the company’s normal bullying and harassment policy. However, the business might have a separate cyberbullying policy that should also be followed.
The employer can choose to follow an informal approach if this will be sufficient to stop the bullying behaviour. In most cases where bullying has taken place, formal action should be taken to punish the bully and act as an effective deterrent against future incidents of bullying.
A disciplinary hearing can be scheduled and then, following the defence or mitigating evidence presented by the employee, a reasonable formal sanction can be given.
To prevent future instances of cyberbullying taking place at work, employers can introduce a specific cyberbullying policy, outlining what conduct will be classed as bullying through email, internet and social media.
They can also train all members of staff on identifying and reporting this type of bullying.
Peter Done is managing director of law firm Peninsula