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The internet never forgets and that is what makes cyberbullying so insidious and so painful for the victims. When it occurs in a workplace context leaders may need to create awareness of what cyberbullying looks like, specific to their organisation, as it may manifest differently across industries, professions and work groups.

New Zealand workplaces are no strangers to issues of bullying, harassment, and violence, but the arrival of cyberbullying presents certain unique challenges and complexities for organisations to navigate.

Workplace cyberbullying can be broadly described as "unwanted or aggressive behaviour(s) perpetrated through electronic media, that may harm, threaten, or demoralise the recipient(s) of these behaviour(s), and can occur beyond work time".

There are two points worth noting here. First, these behaviours can range anywhere from receiving abusive texts or aggressive voicemail messages, to having false allegations or your personal information shared on social media, by colleagues, managers, and even customers or clients.

Secondly, although these behaviours can occur beyond work time or the work premises, this still remains a workplace issue and falls under the primary duty of care remit, as per the Health and Safety at Work Act. While little can be said about the exact prevalence of this type of bullying, the general consensus is that incidents of workplace cyberbullying will continue to increase due to the ease of perpetration and our increased reliance on smartphones and the internet.

It would be remiss, however, to simply categorise cyberbullying as an electronic extension of traditional bullying, without considering the added cyber-specific aspects that make this form of bullying particularly insidious.

For instance, whereas a "single incident of unreasonable behaviour" would not on its own qualify as workplace bullying, this distinction is not as straightforward when considering single instances of cyber abuse that have gone viral or even cases of revenge porn.

In fact, many experts argue that in an online context--and particularly when this involves a relatively public forum such as Facebook--behaviours may not need to be repeated before they can be classified as 'cyberbullying'. Indeed, in such cases it has been noted that repetition is inherent by virtue of the domain itself. So, regardless of the original poster's intention, cyberbullying on social media or other relatively public forums (such as blogs) has the potential not only to be witnessed by an unimaginably large audience, but also the potential to be further shared by these very viewers, who may have little to no connection with either the poster or the target of these messages.

Beyond this scope for rapid and widespread dissemination, cyberbullying also brings with it an added permanence of content. Put simply; 'the internet never forgets'.

This presents another very real threat, and targets of cyberbullying often express their fear of such content coming to light and jeopardising their careers, or even the impact of this on their loved ones.

It is not difficult to imagine the anxiety associated with having a lack of control over who is able to view--often false and very damaging--information about you or whether such incidents might occur again in the future.

It is even easier to understand the added threat associated with these behaviours being perpetrated anonymously. After all, how can you protect or defend yourself against an anonymous attacker hiding behind the safety of a screen?

Finally, because of the continued access offered by our communication devices, targets of cyberbullying often experience these behaviours beyond the work hours and outside of the work premises.

By blurring these work-home boundaries (both metaphorically and physically) cyberbullying intrudes into targets' personal lives, preventing them from escaping the bullying but also from replenishing their coping resources. In fact, targets often talk about bringing the bullying home with them, which can further impact upon their well-being as on their relationships with loved ones. Over time, this can substantially impair an individuals' ability to cope effectively with bullying, and lead to poor health outcomes and burnout.

Thus, with cyberbullying there are added considerations around the spread and permanence of content, as well as issues with crossing spatial and temporal boundaries, that are likely to further amplify the negative physical and psychological effects associated with experiencing bullying in general.

Add to this the fact that targets of cyberbullying often experience other forms of traditional bullying behaviours as well, and we start to paint a rather bleak picture with regard to an increased vulnerability of harm.

In addition, the relative recent emergence of this issue means that workplace cyberbullying represents a rather new issue for organisations to deal with, and it is likely to remain a challenge for both employees being targeted and employers alike.

As with traditional bullying, addressing workplace cyberbullying will require a multi-level approach to intervention, starting with the individual employee and extending more broadly to national-level factors such as the inclusion of cyberbullying in employment legislation and society's broader attitudes toward issues of domestic violence.

While these changes are unlikely to occur overnight, there are certainly more concrete steps that organisations and employees can take to deal with this issue at present.

For one, managers and leaders may need to create awareness of what cyberbullying looks like, specific to their organisation. The most important consideration here is that workplace cyberbullying--like traditional bullying --may 'look' and manifest differently across varying industries, professions, and work groups.

This is particularly evident in mental health services where health professionals may feel compelled to make allowances when dealing with aggressive patients who are unwell or relatives who are highly stressed, while simultaneously deciding when this behaviour becomes inappropriate and no longer tolerated.

Likewise, employees in other public-facing roles, such as call centre workers, may encounter similar challenges. In these cases, organisations may need to determine whether employees in these roles are vulnerable to cyberbullying from external sources (such as clients, customers, patients, and students) and examine what existing measures have been put in place to support these workers, or prevent such incidents from occurring in the first instance.

Further to developing a shared understanding of workplace cyberbullying, organisations also need to clearly include cyberbullying--and other forms of cyber abuse such as cyber harassment--in their existing bullying and harassment policies, as well as social media policies and codes of conduct, more broadly.

Not only is this a requirement to minimise risks to employee health and safety, but a clear cyberbullying policy signals to employees that this is an issue the organisation cares about. In fact, due to a myriad of reasons, such as the novelty of this problem; the lack of education and awareness of cyberbullying among adults; and perhaps even the stigma associated with being bullied, many targets of workplace cyberbullying often believe they have to deal with this issue on their own.

It therefore becomes vital to encourage reporting of these cyberbullying incidents within the workplace--supported by digital evidence, if possible--and to take complaints about all forms of bullying and harassment seriously. As with the management of other psycho-social hazards to employee health and safety, it will take changes to the entire work system to build healthy and respectful workplaces.

Natalia D'Souza is a PhD candidate at Massey University.
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Title Annotation:INBOX
Author:D'Souza, Natalia
Publication:NZ Business
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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