Workplace Bullying in the Digital Age – Old Problem, New Platforms

January 30, 2024

Almost every person who has ever worked with other people in a formal environment has faced so-called office politics. It’s part of the landscape and one well worth learning to navigate. However, once office politics cross over into workplace bullying, it becomes a tremendously complicated issue; and one which has soured the personal and professional lives of countless people.

Unfortunately, instead of abating, workplace bullying has, in the digital age, expanded its footprint and ways in which it can manifest, a labour and education expert says.

“In the digital era, workplace bullying has evolved, extending its reach to online platforms, mainly social media,” says Dr Linda Meyer, Managing Director at IIE Rosebank College and a former Commissioner with the CCMA.

“Workplace bullying encompasses repeated patterns of harmful behaviour towards an employee, including verbal abuse, social isolation and professional sabotage. Now, in addition to the damage caused by traditional bullying in the workplace, social media has piled on additional complexities, enabling digital harassment in the workplace.”

Dr Meyer says that in recent years, bullying and harassment have been extending to social media harassment – with colleagues using online platforms to intimidate, humiliate, or demean a colleague.

“Traditional bullying includes persistent criticism or harsh language, deliberate exclusion in the workplace, actions causing fear or discomfort, hindering a person’s ability to perform tasks, and spreading harmful rumours or lies,” she says.

“Social media harassment includes posting demeaning comments or content, persistent monitoring and commenting on social media activities, disseminating private information or images without consent, posting provocative messages to trigger distress, and creating fake profiles.”

Just like traditional bullying, addressing and stopping digital bullying can be a complex and delicate task, with some people choosing to throw in the towel and quit rather than face the challenge of trying to hold the bully accountable and put an end to the behaviour.

“This is why HR, team managers and companies need to ensure they have sufficient safeguards against bullying and harassment in the workplace – including in the digital sphere.  While most companies will have a code of conduct addressing this issue, more must be done to ensure complainants have credible and robust avenues to report bullying and manage it effectively.

“Bullying takes a toll not only on the individual on the receiving end, but can also have a detrimental effect on the company culture and general employee wellbeing, leading to a loss in productivity and even impacting the bottom line, so it is in the best interest of the company’s leadership to take this issue seriously,” says Dr Meyer.

She says victims of bullying in the workplace can take the following actions to address the issue:

  • Document the bullying: Keep a record of the bullying incident, including the date, time, location, and details of what happened. This information can be used as evidence if you decide to report the bullying. Keep proof of social media activity amounting to bullying, as this may be deleted later.
  • Talk to someone: Speak to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or colleague. They may be able to provide you with support and advice on how to handle the situation.
  • Report the bullying: If you feel comfortable doing so, report the bullying to your manager or HR department. They have a duty to investigate the matter and take appropriate action. Do not, however, file a report without having documented the bullying.  The bully will likely try to gaslight you, so having solidly documented details of the bullying is critical.
  • Seek professional help: If you are struggling to cope with the bullying, consider seeking professional help from a therapist, counsellor or social media legal expert if possible. They can provide you with support and guidance on managing the situation.
  • Know your rights: Familiarise yourself with your company’s policies on bullying and harassment. You have the right to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination.

“The expansion of workplace bullying into the realm of social media necessitates a more dynamic approach from employers,” says Dr Meyer.

“Understanding, recognising, and addressing both traditional and digital forms of harassment are imperative for creating a safe, respectful, and productive work environment. In tackling these challenges head-on, organisations safeguard their employees and enhance their overall culture and reputation.”