Recent studies have shown that bullying and discrimination in the workplace costs Australian businesses between $6bn and $13bn a year in lost productivity with almost three-quarters of Australian workers having experienced bullying at work. That's according to a survey by Elizabeth Urbahn, author of Black Balloon: Surviving a Workplace Bully, which found that this cost is largely due to employees not showing up to work, taking sick days and other paid holidays.
From an HR manager's perspective, the ability to assess and mitigate such workplace issues is compounded by the ubiquitous and expanding options available to people carrying out this undesirable behaviour. One can argue that bullying and harassment are inbuilt components of human interaction. If so, then as society looks even more disdainfully on the open and visible forms of bullying, those with either a conscious or unconscious bent towards bullying and harassment of others will revert to other methods. These are often not so clearly visible but in some cases much more damaging to the victim/s.
In modern society, to define bullying and harassment is in itself a challenge. The obvious examples are now well documented and legislated against, any physical or demeaning type of behaviour is easily identifiable and can be controlled rapidly, decisively and in a manner of setting an example for others. However, the far more insidious nature that has crept into society is the bullying and harassment through our ever expanding electronic communications mediums. This is the best method of the 'silent bully' - no longer the depiction of the muscle bound obnoxious school boy, but the amorphous mind player who can break wills through cleverly targeted communication.
Is this all a bit far fetched? Surely no one will go to those lengths just to gain advantage over another in the workplace or schoolyard? Well, unfortunately it continues. I have seen it first hand, not just once, but regularly as I have moved through my career, embracing each new technology and seeing each new method that gets used to gain leverage over another individual. Each time the person played on the common elements with an individual, gaining trust, and then cleverly breaking down barriers to attain their goal. Every example became harder to spot and decipher, often making it difficult to fathom why an individual has a problem with someone else purely from a single email or other communication method.
Because of the un-emotional component of most electronic communications it often led to the conclusion that 'I think you've mis-understood what they have said'.
However, if you ever have the capability to collate different communications over time you get a different picture. An email trail, an instant messaging chat dialogue, an SMS chain - all can portray a very different message when combined. This e-bully, using a 'silent medium', is the real threat today; someone who verbally bullies or harasses someone will in most cases be sorted out very quickly by their peers in this day and age. When silently bullied, to even consider bringing it to the attention means a time of sufferance to get enough information to be taken seriously in the first stage. What damage has been done by then?
Will the problem ever go away? I'd argue no, it is too ingrained in our genes. What we can do is continue to improve our methods of detection and education to keep ahead of the problem. The technology is available to start to contain these types of abuses, monitor communications, track and collate messages and use this information to get a real picture of what's going on.
It is time we took a look at the communications methods, explain the implications of non face-to-face bullying or harassment, and most importantly start to implement solutions that can turn our paper based policies into practice. This can be achieved by providing salient alerts to suspect practices early, before it's too late for that individual who can't get away from the bully.
Workplace bullying is a big problem - the stats referenced earlier bear that out - but beyond the lost productivity and lack of motivation from your key assets, the business arguably has a duty of care if not a legal responsibility to ensure its staff are not subjected to bullying or harassment in the workplace. As we've seen, this has become harder as a result of more electronic communications. However, the technology exists to build this into a broader acceptable usage policy and help businesses crack down on the e-bully and protect its employees.
About the author
Jeremy Hulse is the VP APAC for Marshal8e6, a global IT security company with Internet, email and data security solutions that allow customers to secure their networks from internal misuse and external threats