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Laying Down The Law On Cyber-Bullying

Last week the case of Canadian school girl Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after years of cyber bullying, was all over the media, and serves as a sad reminder of how hurtful online abuse can be and how quickly it can escalate out of control.

Nowadays, most of us spend more and more time online. Inevitably, issues of associated abuse are carried into businesses. Such abuse is not limited to social media sites. In most businesses, employees have access to the email addresses of other staff members, and so cyber bullying can escalate from there. Text messages and even offensive screen-savers can be used to distribute offensive messages.

The worrying thing is that much of this can take place unnoticed, which is why issues often spiral out of control. Hundreds of emails are likely to be sent everyday, so monitoring and controlling those which ‘cross the line’ can be difficult. Being aware of what might have been said on social networking sights is another ball game altogether.

Earlier this year, the case of Teggart v TeleTech UK Ltd provided a further example to demonstrate the circumstances in which an employee can be dismissed for offensive comments about a work colleague published on a social networking site.

Mr Teggart updated his Facebook status to suggest that a female colleague had been sexually promiscuous with other colleagues. Although the woman in question was not ‘friends’ with Mr Teggart on Facebook (unsurprising perhaps in light of his remarks),she heard about the post from another work colleague and was very upset and distressed by the comments.

After a formal investigation by the company, Mr Teggart was dismissed for gross misconduct for not only harassing his colleague but by bringing the company’s name into dispute. Mr Teggart complained of unfair dismissal, but his claim was dismissed.

Although Mr Teggert made the comments at home after work, his comments were still grounds for dismissal. When an employee takes steps outside work which have an impact on the workplace, the employer has to manage it. This type of situation arises all the time and the advancement of technology means that messages posted online can be distributed very quickly and seen by many within a few minutes of going live. Some organisations promote the use of social networking sites such as Linked-In and Twitter for marketing purposes, which means that the line of what is and isn't acceptable is becoming more and more blurred.

We recommend having a social media policy in place. Some employers are reluctant to implement a policy which restricts their employees’ use of social networking sites for fear that it might be counter-productive. Having a policy in place will spell out your rules, and help you demonstrate due diligence if somebody brings a claim against you.

Incidentally, one of our business associates has recently introduced a social media safety checking service. If you’d like to know more about that get in touch.

Last year, ACAS published a guide for employers in relation to social media. These are the key points.

  • Make sure that you have a social media policy in place and consult with staff on its use.
  • Set out the organisation’s expectations with regard to acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
  • Make it clear that offline conduct is no different to online conduct.
  • Communicate your policies on internet use.
  • Ensure staffs know how to raise formal and informal grievances.

It takes years and years to build a good reputation, but seconds (literally) to ruin it, and the risks of not taking cyber bullying seriously can be extensive and expensive. Most employees will behave impeccably online, but there will always be that one who doesn't. Having a policy in place will make your standards clear, and will hopefully avoid any problems arising. Cyber-bullying is hurtful for all those involved, so it is best avoid it wherever possible.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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