WorkWise: Cyber bullying emerges as workplace problem

culp@workwise.netMarch 17, 2013 

KATHRYN MACDONALD

Khaleelah Jones, working with contractors in her first freelance job post-college, opened emails attacking her because of her age. Not willing to put up with it, she blocked the emails and spoke with the person by telephone and face-to-face. With the mask of anonymity off, the offending woman backed down. Jones is now a digital communications consultant at Something With Words LLC in New York, N.Y., where she is founder and managing partner.

“Cyber bullying is an evolving concept and is generally known to be the use of digital media tools such as the Internet and cell phones to deliberately and repeatedly hurt, harass or embarrass someone,” reports attorney Katherine Catlos, managing partner at the San Francisco, Calif., office of Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo LLP. “ ... (If) an employee uses a company computer to violate the law, an employer could face joint liability in a civil lawsuit.”

Catlos mentions an unpublished case in which an employee was awarded $820,700 from his company, which had allowed other employees to use a blog to call him names and worse. “Many employees were accessing the blog from its computers using generic log-in passwords,” she says, “while others used identifiable names.”

Jeff Shane, executive vice president at Allison & Taylor Inc., in Rochester, Mich., a reference-checking service, attributes cyber bullying to “a desire to get the last negative word in or make a person’s life miserable.” He indicates that remarks you make in social media may also get you in trouble, especially if they’re “too flip.” Even if you speak with the offender directly, as Jones did, Shane advises you to continue to be vigilant for possible recurrence.

“One cannot escape technology,” Catlos points out. Leaving an employer because of cyber bullying won’t guarantee that the person will stop. Shane suggests considering having an attorney write a “cease and desist” letter to the person. Too heavy-handed? Save it for last resort and tell the person that you’ll be contacting your attorney. If the cyber bullying continues, take the next step.

Jones, who speaks anecdotally, does research for a client with an awareness and prevention site encompassing all types of bullying. She’s learned that many people don’t report or under-report cyber bullying, which can come through not just email but IM. She maintains that most cyber bullying involves women, many of whom hold back out of fear that they’ll hamper their promotion prospects or that they’ll be viewed as “whiny.”As in other sensitive situations, targets may not know that they should approach HR or fear that if they do, HR won’t resolve the problem confidentially.

If bullied on a social media site, you may find no HR department to contact. Take your documentation with you up the chain until a person in authority takes decisive action. No legitimate social media site wants users being bullied, if only because of potential legal action.

The fact that some malicious people spend hours on computers every day suggests that cyber bullying isn’t about to go away. Shane advises doing a Google search of your name and checking LinkedIn accounts to see how you appear in social media. Some references have directed him to scour the Web. Then they tell him why. He’ll find “information that would substantiate and reinforce some of (their) negative observations,” Shane reports.

Although Jones recommends “taking solace in knowing you’ve done something,” whether definitive or not, don’t give up. Get that person stopped.

Dr. Mildred L. Culp welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net. © 2013 Passage Media.

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