Preventing Cyberbullying in the Workplace

In the fifth and sixth grade, Marlene was more than the class bully, she was the class dictator. Every girl and even a few boys feared being the target of her scorn.

When the recess bell rang and the class spilled out onto the playground, nothing relieved school day stress more than a good round of double-dutch. To ensure everyone had a chance to jump, my classmates and I would yell out our numbers in the line-up. Inevitably, if you were number one, Marlene would push her way to the top of the line by claiming she was number 0 or some other tactic. Marlene was quick to resort to fighting and violence over not only double-dutch but anything I did that displeased her. My only refuge from Marlene was time away from school. At home, in my room, Marlene was only a looming thought to be dealt with on the next school day.

Today, if Marlene and I attended school or worked together, I am certain she would employ technology and social media to expand her bullying beyond the schoolyard.

October was National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. The federal government maintains Stop Bullying, a website devoted to the subject of cyberbullying and other forms of bullying. Cyberbullying is unique because the bully appears omnipresent and can torment their target using text, email, and social media 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition, with remote work and schooling on the rise during the pandemic, opportunities for cyberbullying increased.

In the workplace, cyberbullying has become a particularly vexing problem for employers.  Currently, there are no federal laws that directly prohibit the act of cyberbullying. However, New York Governor recently signed two new provisions into law that address cyberbullying and online coercion. For those located outside of New York state, other federal laws can apply, since, like most acts of violence, the perpetrators are clever, but not smart.  For example, cyberbullies often run afoul of laws that prohibit acts based on race, gender identity, religion, color, and sexual orientation.

Employers confronted with allegations of cyberbullying, should also determine whether workplace bullying is a form of harassment that violates state and/or federal statutes like Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the 1990 American with Disabilities Act.

The best way for employers to confront and stop workplace cyberbullying is through proactive anti-bullying initiatives. Proactive employment policies may include some or all of the following:

– Designating a workplace Anti-Bullying Coordinator who undergoes continual training on new laws and anti-bullying policies;

– Having an anti-bullying policy that clearly defines in-person bullying and cyberbullying in workplace handbooks;

– Establishing a process to investigate employee complaints, including outsourcing sensitive investigations; and

– Conducting yearly anti-bullying and DEI trainings for employees.

The vast majority of business owners and employees desire workplaces free from toxicity and abusive behaviors as bullying not only affects the target but also impacts those who witness the behavior. A bully-free workplace can be achieved through establishing and maintaining a culture where everyone is reminded that standards of inclusion, equality, and diversity are goals integral to company success.

Today, I am still glad Marlene never had a smartphone to terrorize me at home, and even better; decades later, I can still out jump Marlene in double-dutch.