If workplace cyberbullying is worse, then what can targets do about it?

A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying. Victoria Revay reports for Global News (link here):

In three separate surveys, 320 British university employees were asked to document their experiences with cyberbullying. The study results showed that victims of cyberbullying tended to have “higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction” as compared to traditional bullying.

According to Revay, human resources professor Aaron Schat of McMaster University in Canada, interpreted the results this way:

He says the challenge with cyberbullying in the workplace may be that it lacks a so-called safe haven, or a physical area where the victim can take refuge to avoid the bully. He says this may also be the reason why victims feel more emotionally distressed.

It all makes sense, and it echoes what we know about bullying in schools, where many of the most horrific stories have included online abuse. Just like kids who go home and stay in touch with classmates via e-mails, text messages, Facebook postings, we adults go home and log onto our work e-mail accounts.

For better or for worse (and there’s a lot of each), many of us order and conduct much of our lives with our laptops, tablets, and smart phones. This alone makes us more susceptible to partaking in online exchanges gone haywire.

Online lives at work

Especially in service-sector occupations where practically everyone works with a computer, it makes sense that cyberbullying looms large. Group memos once delivered via interoffice mail are now sent to our inboxes. Individual and small group discussions once conducted via face-to-face meetings or phone may now be held via e-mail or discussion board.

Many of us have been on the giving and receiving end of e-mails and online exchanges that, intentionally or not, quickly escalated into unpleasantries. It’s so easy to dash off a snippy reply and hit “enter” or “return.” And when someone directs a barb or dig at us, we sit before our screens and feel our blood boil.

When the dynamics of workplace bullying enter the picture, the power differentials between verbally skilled aggressors and their targets can become magnified, and the words on the screen take on an obsessive life of their own.

What do to

As with bullying at work generally, there are no magic answers for those who are experiencing workplace cyberbullying.

Revay concludes her article with collected advice from workplace experts:

Try to find a safe haven
Talk to peers
Ask for affirmation
Seek advice
Document the abuse
Don’t reply to bullying messages

The list contains sensible stock advice for dealing with bullying situations, but the final two are especially significant:

First, do more than document the abuse. Make sure you save and print out the offending online exchanges or postings. Especially with indirect or passive-aggressive forms of bullying, context is everything. Our increasing “cyber-literacy” means that a lot of people can read an online exchange and understand the point at which it crossed the line and became extremely abrasive or even abusive. (Sadly, it’s like watching a verbal train wreck unfold before our very eyes.)

Second, the final point — “Don’t reply to bullying messages” — is worth expounding upon. Keep any responses steady and measured, and by all means avoid an emotional response that will lead the aggressor(s) to label you as the “bully.” Don’t try to “win” the exchange or insist on having the last word, because the aggressor wants to goad you into going overboard. If you’re at home, log out of your work e-mail account and give yourself some distance from what’s going on.

Remember, those who are skilled at online verbal abuse and conflict generation often are very good at what they do. They instinctively know how this medium can be used to push the buttons of targets, sometimes by making references that sound innocuous to bystanders but are loaded with meaning to targets. Whenever possible, disengage, don’t take the bait. This will not fix the bigger problem confronting you, but it may provide you with some emotional control over a nasty situation.

A sort-of safe haven

Okay, maybe it’s hard to avoid checking our work e-mail from home or elsewhere. Or perhaps you telecommute. Regardless, this is yet another reason for all of us not to rely on our work e-mail addresses as our primary personal ones, especially with free or low-cost e-mail alternatives readily available. Get a separate e-mail account for personal use, and don’t use it as an alternative or backup work address.


6 responses

  1. I wonder whether most targets of cyberbullying are also experiencing bullying in other contexts too? I wonder what the prevalence of different methods of bullying is, and how often they are combined to ensure the target has, as you say, no safe haven at all.

  2. I’ve concluded from past job experiences that people who work together should basically never communicate via e-mail (or any other electronic communication). It’s too easy to get into an argument, too easy to say the wrong thing, and the matter doesn’t get settled as quickly as in a face-to-face disagreement. It just lingers on and on as you wait for that angry reply back from your angry e-mail a few hours earlier. It’s just so unhealthy.

    Actually, I’d apply this general rule to any situation in life. Text-based communication is unhealthy, which is why I have comments disabled on my own blog (and why I won’t read any replies to this comment I’m leaving right now).

  3. I received a threat from my research supervisor, i felt bullied by him, I reported him to the accrediting university i.e. to their anti-bullying officers. But he was unstoppable and continued insisting via several emails that i must meet him ‘alone’ for research supervision although he was already suspended 3 months prior to that as my research supervisor. . . He said that if i don’t meet him alone ‘this will create further delays in my capacity to finish my thesis’ that was already significantly delayed compared to my junior colleagues who borrowed my research proposal two years prior to that so they could write theirs. . . resolution of my case continues, seems like the university that deals with it is lost. . . Learning from this situation? Well just because a large university has a list of anti-bullying officers on their website it does not mean the system works, because my anti-bullying officer forwarded me onto another member of staff in September 2011 who then was polite, kind but said that ‘technically i already failed’ because the research supervisor kept delaying me and i could not meet my deadline for one module the research supervisor kept sabotaging me to complete! However, other than that, this person recommended by the anti-bullying officer has not resolved the situation. On second occasion in March 2012 when i reported the research supervisor to the anti-bullying officer, once again via email, and asked her if she would attend with me the meeting I felt coerced into and although he the person who coerced me into this research supervision was not my research supervisor, the anti-bullying officer never responded to me although another person was copied into the email. . . so i was left feeling unsupported and had to rely on myself only. My health suffered and I was hospitilized and my surgeon was aware, thankfully all is documented on emails and official documents. My case is being now investigated and much progressed has been made but the people i felt bullied by and abused by and although i provided enough concrete evidence still try to interfere and are allowed to interfere and other students apparently are experiencing what i did. . .

  4. Pingback: A journalist writes about being savagely cybersmeared | As the Adjunctiverse Turns

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