Technology has dramatically changed the way we work, allowing people to work remotely and connecting colleagues around the world. But there is a darker side to these new technological advances, as many workers are finding out.
Shortly after starting a new job at a PR firm in London, Clare* found herself a victim of cyberbullying at work. "My colleagues would be emailing or texting each other while in the same room and then smirking and laughing at each other. This escalated to one of them 'accidentally' sending me emails that contained insults about me and then feigning innocence and saying it wasn't about me and he didn't know why I'd got the email."
Clare's colleagues also tried to damage her reputation with her boss and contacts outside of the business. "They would purposely tell me the wrong time to arrive at events, so they could then tell the boss I was late. They also repeatedly didn't copy me into other email communications so I was left in the dark about what was going on at work, then email me asking me to follow up with something I had no idea about," she says.
"I began to dread going into work and became paranoid, wondering what every email they sent was saying and if it was about me. I felt constantly anxious and close to tears, and was reminded of the misery of school bullying," she says.
Cyberbullying is often associated with teenagers and schools, but it is increasingly common in workplaces. "Adult cyberbullying in the workplace can be more subtle, but is equally distressing. The outcomes are often the same -- to humiliate, undermine and distress the person being targeted," says Dan Raisbeck, co-founder of anti-cyberbullying charity The Cybersmile Foundation.
Clare believes that working in a small company meant she did not receive adequate support when she raised the issue with her boss. So after six months she decided to leave. "There is a feeling that the bullies have ‘won' if you're the one that ends up quitting," she says. "But I had to weigh up whether taking the moral high ground and refusing to be beaten was worth the impact it was having on my mental health."
Victims of bullying are often told to toughen up and just ignore the behavior. But with technology generating an always-on work culture, and blurring the boundaries between personal and professional lives, bullies have new ways to infiltrate their victim's life outside office hours.
Fiona* also found herself subject of insulting emails sent between her former team-mates at the digital marketing agency where she worked in Manchester. This bullying, which took place over the course of a year and got worse when she was promoted, extended beyond the physical realm of the office, spilling into her personal life. "When I would put something on Instagram, they would screenshot it and mock it. Even when I was away from the office or on holiday, I'd think about what I would post and second guess myself." She was afraid that blocking them on social networks would make matters worse.
"I'm normally a very happy and confident person. It really destroyed my confidence for a bit and made me meeker," she says.
Cyberbullying often inspires a "gang/pack mentality" in workplaces, leaving the victim feeling very isolated, says Emma Kenny, psychologist and founder of wellbeing site Make Your Switch. "It can almost feel like stalking -- as if people know something about your life, true or untrue," she says.
The fluidity between work and home presents a challenge for employers who want to stamp out bullying behavior -- especially as they increasingly use social media tools themselves for employee engagement. Since employers have a duty of care to their employees, is it their responsibility to take action if the bullying between co-workers takes place outside of the office on personal computers and devices?
The law is still catching up in this area, but it is possible for employers to discipline employees and even fire them for their behavior and activities outside of work, says Anna Byford, senior employment lawyer at Kemp Little, a law firm that specializes in technology and digital media. "What is particularly challenging for employers -- assuming they are good ones trying to create a culture where [bullying] is not acceptable -- is that there is every chance they won't know about it, so their ability to police it is quite limited," she says.
Having well-drafted company policies, which spell out that this behavior will be considered a disciplinary offense, irrespective of whether it occurs outside or inside of the office, is helpful here, says Byford. More broadly, employers should be thinking about creating procedures and training to ensure they have a culture able to deal with bullying, she says.
Fiona has since found a new job at a larger, global company, where she says such policies are in place. She believes that if her previous employer monitored communications between staff, the issue would have been picked up and sorted out earlier. "We were always told that we were being monitored, but evidently we weren't."
How much companies can monitor their employees is a grey area, however. "Most employers aren't monitoring everything their employees do because that's very difficult to justify," says Byford. "But when it comes to cyberbullying, they may be able to justify it, provided it is proportionate -- and their position is a lot stronger if they have informed employees in a policy in their contract that they may monitor email correspondence where they suspect wrongdoing."
Since offending digital communications can be saved and stored, it is arguably easier for victims to collect evidence of cyberbullying themselves. Yet there is always the risk that digital communications might be misconstrued or interpreted differently, too -- which bullies could use to justify their behavior. Taking note of incidents related to the cyberbullying -- such as being passed over for a pay rise or promotion -- can be helpful in these circumstances, says Byford.
Since being cyberbullied, Fiona is wary of friendships in the workplace and makes a point of stepping away from the computer and building face-to-face relationships with colleagues and avoiding cliques. "People hide behind their keyboards. I make sure it's not all the same people who go to lunch together, not always the same people who work together on a project, and I make sure I have open conversations, rather than constant email threads."
*Some names have been changed.
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