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Bullying in the Workplace Reaching Epidemic Proportions

Cyberbullying Destroys the Culture of an Organization

Workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress. Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power and can create feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work.

One study found that 96 percent of the 2,283-people surveyed had experienced bullying at work and 54 percent of workplace bullies had been at it for five-plus years. In some cases, the bullies continued in the same job for thirty-plus years. The bullying was widespread with 80 percent of respondents saying the bully affected five or more people. The authors of the survey concluded that bullying can’t persist unless there is a complete breakdown in all four systems of accountability: personal (the victim him or herself), peer (others who witness the behavior), supervisory (hierarchical leaders), and formal discipline (HR).

One danger of ignoring workplace bullying is it can morph into cyberbullying, a potentially more damaging form of discrimination that can have life-threatening results. Back in April 2016, the body of a 31-year old firefighter, Nicole Mittendorf, was discovered in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. After a week-long search, it was determined that Nicole had committed suicide and that she had been the victim of cyberbullying – likely by her co-workers – for years. An investigation found derogatory and sexist online postings about Nicole and other female firefighters on an anonymous community forum that many believe contributed to her suicide-hanging.

Cyberbullying usually looks like offensive emails or text messages containing off-color comments and suggestive remarks about one’s sex/sexuality, race/nationality/, religion, or sexual preference. Examples of cyberbullying in the workplace include:

  • Sharing embarrassing situations relating to the co-worker with everyone online.
  • Being offensive and mean to a co-worker on social media websites and networks.
  • Spreading rumors or gossip about a co-worker.
  • Attacking the credibility of a co-worker.

Cyberbullying can cause extreme emotional stress and affect workplace performance. The danger of cyberbullying in the workplace is that it follows you home after working hours. The target is under constant harassment even when the working day is over. The only way to stop such harassment is to report it, but there is no guarantee it will be taken seriously by one’s superior/boss, or even top officials in the company. Reporting may even have counter-productive effects.

Cyberbullying in the workplace needs to be addressed by creating a culture that refuses to nurture a bully. As with most unethical practices in the workplace, the best way to prevent cyberbullying is to set specific standards on the practice; identify reporting channels; identify consequences for cyberbullying; and promote transparency.

Employers should take steps to lessen the likelihood of cyberbullying in the workplace. If not adequately addressed immediately, persistent cyberbullying can lead to low productivity, high turnover, the loss of quality employees and increased costs of hiring and training new employees. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Clearly define bullying, harassment, and inappropriate behavior.
  • Establish firm policies regarding bullying, including acceptable use of technology.
  • Consistently evaluate workplace culture; bullying often starts at the top.
  • Provide training for staff and management in how to deal with bullying.
  • Clarify responsibilities to report cyberbullying; use hot lines for anonymous reporting.
  • Take swift corrective action when bullying is determined.

There are no federal laws that address bullying or cyberbullying, but it does overlap with discriminatory harassment if based on race, color, sex, age, religion, or disability. At this point, cyberbullying is mainly covered by state law. At least 44 states have some laws on cyberbullying.

The expression that “Ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking” addresses the underlying motivation for some people to post anonymous, distasteful comments about a co-worker, as in the case of Nicole Mittendorf. The abuser does not expect to get caught.

People who take to social media to vent their frustrations or post anonymous, offensive comments about a co-worker commit a cowardly act. They most likely believe no one is watching or no one will care enough to take action. They have a blind spot where ethics is concerned because they fail to consider the consequences of their action.

Cyberbullying is reaching epidemic proportions. The reason is the breakdown of civility in our society. Too many people act first and think about the consequences later rather than the reverse.

April 28 is ‘Pay it Forward’ Day. Pay it Forward is a global initiative that exists to make a difference by creating a string of kind actions felt across the world. The idea is even small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can literally change the world for the better. The goal of the day is to encourage us to embrace the power of giving; show each other that we care; make a difference in someone’s life; and encourage others to do the same.

In the spirit of the day and a commitment to perform ‘random acts of kindness, I would like to see each of us use the occasion as a springboard to make the workplace a more welcoming environment for all and do what we can to discourage cyberbullying. All of us would be better for the effort.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 19, 2017. Follow me on Twitter. “Like” my Facebook  page.  Sign up for my Newsletter Visit my website at: