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Website URL : http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx/www.hse.gov.uk/media/image/s/m/index.aspx?articleid=3379

Social media and bullying

Social media has brought with it bullying in a different form - through the internet.
Bullying through technology is not always so tangible - the victim may not see it, though their colleagues may, and it can carry on online away from the workplace.
An employer still needs to deal with cyber bullying, as it can be as damaging as any other kind of bullying, and sometimes more so.

Key points

  • Cyber bullying: This is bullying, harassment and victimisation conducted through social media such as blogs or social networking sites. Inappropriate photographs, offensive or threatening comments or sensitive personal information might be posted vindictively. A manager or an employee might be targeted.

    The victim may, or may not, be aware that they are being bullied. For example, while they are likely to see a threat emailed to them, they may not see comments on a social networking site.
  • Technology is evolving fast: This may offer more opportunities for bullying to take place. Also, employers may struggle to keep pace with how the rate of technological change affects their policies, reviewing them and then getting them up to date. This could impact on how effectively they maintain the standards of behaviour they expect.

    While it is not legally possible to make a claim solely about bullying to an employment tribunal, an employee may be able to bring a claim under laws covering discrimination and bullying.
  • Conduct outside of work: Social media tools, such as smart phones and social networking sites, can be used so that bullying between staff can more easily be conducted out of working hours and away from work premises.
  • Risk of exclusion: Managers and employees can sometimes feel pressure to join someone's online circle of 'friends' or work contacts.

    For example, even though an employee might prefer not to accept an invitation, they might worry that to decline or ignore it could offend the sender, and cause a problem further down the line. Some staff can be uncomfortable either accepting or declining an invitation from their line manager or other senior member of the organisation.

The way forward

  • Update bullying and disciplinary policies: An employer should include guidance on the use of social media. For example, it should clearly state what behaviour is unacceptable. This might include the use of offensive or intimidating language directed at another employee on social networking sites.

    Also, an employer should consider widening its bullying policy to cover cyber bullying outside the workplace. This should be done in consultation with employee or trade union representatives.
  • Monitor electronic activity: An employer can check emails and social networking sites if an employee reports instances of cyber bullying. But, an employer must monitor with the full knowledge of those employees being watched (see the Acas guide Social media, defamation, data protection and privacy).

Acas Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Wakeling talks about social media in the workplace.