Is Wells Fargo a Corrupt Organization?
Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace for Employees

The Rise of Cyberbullying in the Workplace

Social Media Increasingly Used to Bully Others in the Workplace

I have previously blogged about the problem of cyberbullying in the workplace and how it emanates from an abuse of power. It has been reported that most of the time cyber bullying in the workplace is treated with a shoulder shrug. Employers do not see how this social problem can affect the well-being of their employees, thus, their ability to produce and give the output they should be giving. The direct effect being the cyber bullying can cause the workplace to be unproductive and very stressful.

Implications of Cyberbullying in the Workplace

In her article, The Real-World Implications of Workplace and Cyberbullying, Meghan Biro cites a recent study by Vital Smarts, a leadership consultancy, that polled nearly 3,000 people on the topic of workplace bullying. A stunning 96% of respondents indicated they’d been bullied in the workplace. Other chilling statistics: 62% of bullying came in the form of sabotaging work and/or reputation; 52% in ‘browbeating, threats and intimidation’, and 4% in actual physical assault.

Bullying behavior can present in several ways from face-to-face or telephone confrontation, to more passive e-mail and text messaging bullying, to more aggressive cyber bullying conducted via Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and blogs.

Hostile Work Environment

Currently, under federal law, employees are protected if subjected to a "hostile working environment" that is motivated by their perceived or actual race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information or age. Various state and city laws may also protect employees against hostility aimed at, among other things, marital status, political affiliation, sexual preference, sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Generally, in order to prevail on a hostile working environment claim, an employee needs to establish that the harassing conduct, regardless of the way it was communicated, was unwelcome, aimed at the victim's protected status, subjectively abusive to the employee, and "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the [victim's] employment."2  Whether the harassing conduct is considered severe or pervasive so as to be actionable is determined on a case-by-case basis, with consideration often paid to the following factors:

  • the frequency and severity of the unwelcome conduct;
  • whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance;
  • whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with work performance;
  • the effect on the employee's psychological well-being; and
  • whether the alleged harasser was a superior within the organization.

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings

In evaluating whether conduct that does not result in a tangible job detriment (i.e. failing to hire, termination, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a significant change in benefits or compensation) is nevertheless actionable, the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically noted that "simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)" are insufficient to constitute severe and pervasive.  Statutes protecting employees from hostile working environments are not meant to be "a general civility code" and, when applied as intended, should not elevate a complaint involving ordinary workplace behaviors, such as the sporadic use of abusive language . . . and occasional teasing" to unlawful harassment.

Consequences of Bullying

Bullying can result in significant consequences for employers, such as:

  • Reduced efficiency, productivity and profitability
  • Increased absenteeism and sick and medical leave
  • Increased employee turnover resulting in additional recruitment costs
  • Poor morale, erosion of employee loyalty and commitment
  • Increased workers' compensation claims
  • Adverse publicity and negative public image
  • Legal costs incurred defending workplace bullying claims (even if such claims are found not be actionable)

Statutory Concerns

Enacting a statute providing a private right of action for bullied employees would likely reduce the incidence of bullying and increase employer awareness of the necessity to prohibit such behavior. However, challengers to such legislation have been strident in their opposition; they fear such a statute would subject employers to a barrage of frivolous lawsuits and threats. 

Moreover, opponents fear that legal regulation of workplace bullying will open a floodgate of employee complaints about conduct that does not amount to bullying, and is likely present in any work environment. Such conduct includes criticism of performance, discourteous remarks or acts of frustration, differences in opinion, insensitivity to work demands, and disappointing performance reviews. Accordingly, workplace bullying must be clearly defined to ensure it does not prevent the proper exercise of managerial authority, including decisions relating to job duties, workloads, deadlines, transfers, reorganizations, work instructions or feedback, evaluations, performance management, and/or disciplinary actions.

Cyberbullying and Civility

Cyberbullying in the workplace is on the rise because civility in society has broken down. Most people get their news and entertainment through Internet sites and engage in social media activities that can be best summed up as narcissistic behavior. Gone are the days when each of use looked out for the other. We no longer seek to make the workplace more ethical but, instead, look for ways to turn it to our advantage, and this may include bullying a co-worker who threatens our position.

The problem is one of education. There needs to be intensive training about cyberbullying just as companies train their employees on ethical behavior and avoiding sexual harassment. It’s virtually impossible to develop an ethical organization culture without recognizing the threats to creating such a culture and infusing a healthy dose of civility born of respect for others and treating them the way we want to be treated.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 26, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at