The Many Faces of Cyberbullying at Work

Young people are not the only victims of social media’s hurtful words. Virtual violence also affects employees. An emerging reality which managers must adapt to.

Teasing, insults, denigration, defamation, hate… Bullying in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but the widespread use of social networks has moved verbal abuse from school corridors to Facebook. “On the Internet, the messages are there forever, the public is infinite and hiding behind the screen reduces empathy on the perpetrators part for the victim,” says Martha Saint-Laurent, speaker and author on bullying. “In the end, words are often more virulent.”

Another factor to consider about Internet commentary: The writing leaves more room for interpretation than any spoken word could. “A joke can often be badly perceived,” states Saint-Laurent.


An always concerned employer

Cyberbullying can sometimes take place outside the office, from an employee’s personal computer for example, but it still requires action on the manager’s part. The law on psychological harassment requires the employer to intervene, or else may be sued by the employee who he has failed to protect.

But what happens on Facebook also affects the whole team. These actions may end up poisoning the entire work environment. “There is a risk that it escalates if nothing is being done to stop it, but also confrontation between the victim and the perpetrator and the creation of clans,” says Ghislaine Labelle, CHRA and organizational psychologist at the SCO Council Group.



Managers can prevent these bad behaviours from even starting by raising awareness. “The fact that it is virtual and therefore not concrete gives people the impression that their Facebook messages have no consequences,” says Katherine Poirier, CHRP and partner at Borden Ladner Gervais.

Training your staff on policies regarding the non-use of social media for harassment and discrimination is essential. “This policy must be accessible, easy to understand and regularly amended to relate to the organization’s realities,” says the labor law and employment specialist.


Do not let the situation escalate

When cyberbullying is reported to the manager, the latter's interest is to intervene early by meeting the perpetrator and demand that the hurtful messages be taken down. “The people who have manipulative tendencies may at first deny this or assert their freedom of expression,” states Labelle. “So, be careful and prepare as best you can by gathering documentary evidence, relying on the company’s policy against harassment and conveying a clear message.”

A manager’s reaction must also depend on the employee's file and the context in which acts of cyberbullying are taking place in. “Has he been cooperative in agreeing to withdraw the messages immediately, or has he not? Has he confessed or is he in denial? Was the initial motivation to want revenge or to make a joke?” asks Katherine Poirier. “The punishment must be gradual, going from a warning to a suspension, and ultimately, firing.” A mediation between the offender and the victim is sometimes desirable, especially if the psychological integrity of the target employee is reached.

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