What is Cyberbullying?

Bullying isn't just for the playground, and it's certainly not just for teenagers. As more workplaces depend on daily communication via mobile phones, email correspondence, chat applications, and other technologies, more opportunities open for cyberbullies to strike. If you've ever found yourself wondering \What is cyberbullying?" or even questioning if you've experienced the phenomenon for yourself, it's a good time to learn more about its definition and the effects it can have in the workplace.

What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is harassment that takes place online or through electronic devices. The Northeastern University Office of Information Security offers the following specific examples, based on a report from a consulting firm called CQR:

  • Threatening emails or texts
  • Jokes about ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or other personal topics sent electronically
  • Public shaming over mass email
  • Embarrassing, offensive, or manipulated images or videos of a coworker
  • The spread of lies and gossip on social media

It's important to note that these behaviors must be willful, repeated, harmful, and occur through an electronic device to qualify, as stated by the Cyberbullying Research Center. This pattern of abuse goes much deeper than simply a bad day at the office or one misinterpreted remark from a coworker.

Toll on Employees
Whether cyber-initiated or in-person, bullying in the workplace can negatively impact individual employees as well as the overall company culture. According to a study published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, the emotional and mental drawbacks of bullying in the workplace can include \"increased mental distress, sleep disturbances, fatigue in women and lack of vigor in men, depression and anxiety, adjustment disorders, and even work-related suicide.\"

The harmful effects of bullying in the workplace ripple outwardly, affecting more than just the direct target of the attacks. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology points out that studies have shown that victims exhibit more absences and diminished functioning, and can cost an organization as much as $14,000 per employee in lost performance.

One additional downside to cyberbullying is that it may go unreported and unaddressed, either because nobody besides those involved know about it, or because people feel less responsible. Iain Coyne, a researcher who co-conducted a study on cyberbullying, had this to say in Psychology Today: \"Witnesses are much less affected. This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace - perhaps people empathize less with the victims. This could affect the witness's reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene.\"

It's hard to imagine a company retaining employees and fostering their best work in an environment where something as innocuous as an email or a text message can ignite fear because of sustained harassment.

How Can Leadership Help?
Cyberbullying comes in many flavors, from pointed exclusion of a coworker from important communications to a bully telling their target that they should quit their job. Oftentimes, it falls on the senior leadership to identify, prevent, and punish cyber harassment. What are some methods that HR, management, and owners should use to keep their workplace productive, positive, and free of cyberbullies? One Forbes contributor offers several pertinent tips to counter workplace harassment:

  • Set a mission statement for company culture
  • Make sure management is setting a good example
  • Update HR policies and training to include this type of harassment
  • Investigate departments that have trouble retaining employees
  • Take direct action whenever these bad behaviors occur

Just like you protect your business against outside cyber-attacks, protect your employees from the effects of cyberbullying by staying vigilant and implementing a plan to shut it down. It's time to transition from asking \"What is cyberbullying?\" to playing an active role to stop it in the workplace.

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