Virtual bullies have real-world consequences
We’ve all read or heard stories about cyberbullying—usually in the context of high school suicide brought on by relentless social media attacks—but we hear less about cyberbullying in the workplace. Turns out that bullies grow up and get jobs, and you’ve probably worked with one at some point in your life.
Joseph Smith (name changed to protect identity), a veterinary technician and victim of social media bullying, courageously shared his story with me in a recent interview.
“I had a pretty heavy [social media] post written about me,” Smith says. “It tore at the core of who I thought I was. The post was seen by many of my colleagues. Knowing the source, I knew to brush it off. What I do have a hard time shaking is seeing this person attack many other people, including students.”
What counts as cyberbullying? Threats, harassment, humiliation or intimidation that occurs through electronic devices, including computers, tablets and cellphones. Smith’s online abuser tried to damage his reputation with his colleagues and contacts.
“I fear that with the suicide rate so high in our profession, posts like the one written about me could trigger dangerous feelings for others with less emotional armor,” he says.
Cyberbullying is, at its essence, a form of psychologically violent behavior that erodes the health and well-being of an individual through chronic stress and undermines a business by poisoning trust and teamwork. While we’d like to think that working adults wouldn’t behave so badly, it may be on the rise in workplaces. In a 2012 survey, eight out of 10 respondents reported experiencing behavior that could be classified as cyberbullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute (yes, there is such a thing) put out a survey in 2014 in which 65.6 million workers reported being affected by bullying in the workplace. 72 percent reported that their employer failed to respond to reported abusive conduct.
Cyberbullying is horrible, damaging, underreported and now illegal in many states—so, caveat scriptor. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 48 states have laws against cyberbullying, and federal legislation has been proposed. All states have various criminal laws that can be applied to bullying behaviors, depending on the nature of the act. All states also have criminal harassment or stalking statutes, and most include explicit reference to electronic forms.
When it comes to bullies and victims alike, Smith is surprised that people still don’t get that what they post online, email or text exists forever.
“One thing I don’t think our generation has learned with the advent of social media is the taming of our words when written in a permanent media,” Smith says. “When things are said verbally, sure it hurts and can get passed around, but they eventually die. Digitally, the words are here forever, whether they’re screenshotted, emailed or archived in our social media cache.”
Smith’s advice for the victim is not to stoop to the bully’s level: “It takes a great amount of emotional intelligence to take bullying and not be completely defeated, but it also takes a lot of emotional intelligence to not bully back. Whenever possible, ignore. When not ignorable, stand up for yourself in the most polite and dignified way. Karma will handle the rest.”
Unlike in person, cyberbullies can bring entirely separate problems. As a manager, you can often find yourself in a rut while trying to handle the often-anonymous offenders and their victims. Here are some things you can do. Click the handout below to download (and take a look at the team handout below as well!).
If you find yourself the victim of a cyberbully, more often than not you'll find yourself feeling isolated. Remember, you're not alone. Here are some steps you can take. Click to download and share with your team manager.