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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Is workplace cyberbullying influencing organisational culture?

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One of the key research questions that helped me unpack the impact of workplace cyberbullying was: Do employees correlate workplace cyberbullying with ineffective organisational culture?

The research.
The first study comprised 24 confidential face-to-face interviews, the second extended to 127 responses to a text-based anonymous online survey, while the third regarded a statistical anonymous online survey of 463 survey respondents. 

   While this question was unexpectedly crucial in all three studies, it was further emphasised by the statistical results.

First of all, what is “organisational culture”? 
According to Boucaut (2001, 2003) , culture is developed from the values, beliefs and conduct requirements governing both workplace processes and employees’ behaviour and interactions, and is a significant element within the context of the workplace. Other research (Tuckey, Dollard, Hosking, & Winefield, 2009)  determined that the efficacy of cultural structures and procedures, rewards and so on are critical in establishing healthy workplace cultures and behaviours.

In brief, what did my research find in response to the question posed above? 
Qualitative data from my first two studies gathered text-based information that was analysed using LeximancerOne of the key findings was that employees perceived existing organisational (or agency) anti-bullying and harassment intervention and prevention laws, policies and programs as extensive. However, many raised doubts as to the capacity for existing frameworks to be effective within the new online context. This point was explained by one of the interviewees:

I don’t know whether our existing frameworks [legislative and policy] will support us with cyberbullying or online stalking or harassment behaviours or [are able to] take us, as a [organisation] into the future. I really don’t know, that’s the short answer to your question. And there’s another side of the coin, regarding whether there’s any legal provision that could protect us [as] employees from clients that use [these] online mechanisms.
   Indeed, many employees admitted that, while some attempt had been made to retrofit anti-workplace cyberbullying frameworks from the generally 1990’s workplace laws, existing intervention and prevention measures were too slow and therefore ineffective when dealing with the immediacy of cyberbullying. This point was clarified by one interviewee, who said:

The old protection processes [policy frameworks] were very different – there was personal discipline around account management – only certain people signed their name to documents and they were the [only] visible points of contact. Now the technology makes it easier for people to exert pressure and professional defamation is a lot easier now, it’s very easy for individuals to be held out for ridicule on websites…Websites are also being used to publicly defame officials who are just doing their job. [It’s] very hard to stop sophisticated campaigns especially for websites that are internationally based. It’s hard to shut them down.
   This observation was also described by employees who had observed, or experienced, both overt and anonymous cyberbullying events (where the perpetrator’s identity is disclosed or hidden), and/or occasions where online perpetrators followed them from work to home, and job to job, state to state. Some other negative online behaviours that were viewed as bullying using technology (cyberbullying) included:

Destruction or removal of colleagues work/electronic documents. Denigrating work colleagues in social media. Hacking of colleagues online profiles. Publishing/distributing information protected by privacy laws. Producing false emails to support allegations where no such communications previously exist.
   It is reasonable to suppose that internal perpetrators (that is, other employees within the organisation rather than external clients and stakeholders) would be held to account for their actions, however one respondent wrote, “No repercussions or accountability for the behaviour of the individual attacking the [staff member]....”

  Employees dealing with cyberbullying from external clients and stakeholders reporting feeling even more vulnerable and powerless to defend themselves:

Clients posting negative or derogatory comments about staff on line, providing     personal details of staff members, misrepresenting what actually happened in order to make staff appear wrong or incompetent, publishing official correspondence from staff online and out of context, making threats that this will happen to other staff members in the course of their duty, in order to intimidate staff...

How the statistical data highlighted the impact of workplace cyberbullying on organisational culture.
While the qualitative evidence were deeply concerning, the findings from the statistical study* (the third and final project) highlighted employees' perceptions as to the potentially negative effect cyberbullying has on organisational culture. This study found that over half (56.2%) of the nationally-based public sector participants reported associating workplace cyberbullying with ineffective organisational culture (workplace laws, policies and governance practices).

*Note: statistical data was analysed using a histogram and Spearman's rank non-parametric correlation coefficient, and found a statistically significant negative correlation  (ρ = -.683 and - .581, p < .001) between participants perceptions of workplace cyberbullying and perceptions of organisational culture. 

Background about the third study.
The third study was developed as a result of the findings from the first two studies.
(reference: mixed method sequential exploratory research design, Bergman, 2008, 2010, 2011; Green, Caracelli, & Graham, 1989; Morgan, 2007; Morse, 2005; Plano Clark, 2010; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 1998).

   The sample size consisted of 463 survey responses and was deemed between good to very good (Comrey & Lee, 1992), while the anonymous participants represented a diverse range of government employees, being as they worked across local, State, Territory and Commonwealth nationally-based organisations and comprised all levels including Secretary/CEO, executive, middle-management and junior staff. As a consequence, the findings from this third study are seen as statistically significant, and underpin the findings arising from the first two (qualitative/text-base) studies.

What I believe this research means for Australian organisations.
Firstly, based on the empirical and consistent evidence arising from these three studies, it seems clear that firstly, employees perceived existing anti-bullying and harassment frameworks as extensive. However, employees also viewed these existing frameworks as generally vague and inept in resolving, preventing or intervening in workplace cyberbullying events.

   This finding of itself is deeply concerning, particularly given Zhangand Leidner’s (2014) observation, that while “workplace cyberbullying behaviors are not likely to be treated as corporate crimes, they are behaviors that can produce a hostile work climate and while not illegal, may violate organizational norms and policies” (p. 2).

   However, I believe equally concerning is the lack of awareness by organisational leaders regarding the effect of workplace cyberbullying on both their employees and their organisation's culture.

   While this issue has been highlighted by my research, more studies are needed to fully understand how aggressive and dysfunctional workplace behaviours arise, how these behaviours are communicated (face-to-face or online), and out of the raft of existing prevention and intervention measures, which ones are actually working, and what needs to change.

Dr Lawrence has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and works with individuals and organisations as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She uses her social science expertise to enhance interactions between organisations and the people who lead and work in them by fostering new insights for diagnosing organisational problems, and build new capabilities and culture.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

"The Conversation": Cyberbullying in the Australian public sector

Cyberbullying widespread amongst public servants


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Monday, 18 January 2016

SafetyAtWorkBlog: Workplace cyberbullying research



Important research into workplace cyber-bullying

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Last week several Australian news sites reported on a new thesis about public servants and cyber-bullying which is discussed in detail below. The reports are based mostly on amedia release about the research issued by Queensland University of Technology (QUT).  What caught my eye was the statement in the one media report that the researcher, DrFelicity Lawrence,
“…said traditional workplace bullying already cost the nation about $36 billion a year, “so the cost of cyber bullying on productivity could be profound”.
Not true.  In the QUT statement, Lawrence stated
“Traditional workplace bullying costs the national economy up to $36 billion each year, so the cost of cyberbullying on productivity could be profound,…”
“up to” vs “about? This differentiation is important because the lack of clarity creates OHS myths and these myths can misinform policy priorities and public understanding of workplace hazards.
The falsity of the A$36 billion cost figure was addressed in a SafetyAtWorkBlog article in 2012. The original data shows a range of costs estimated at between A$6 billion to A$36 billion and is based on “international studies as a guide”.  The QUT statement is correct in stating cost estimates of up to $36 billion, but it is not possible to accept “about $36 billion” as accurate.  The writer could also have said “about $6 billion”.  As far as this writer knows, Australia still does not have a more accurate estimate of the costs of workplace bullying than the 2010 estimate that allows for a A$30 billion variation!
Cover of Felicity_Lawrence_ThesisPerceptions
Thankfully, QUT has provided public access to Dr Lawrence’s thesis on which some of the reports are based. “Prevalence and Consequences of Negative Workplace Cyber Communications in the Australian Public Sector” states that
“…significant statistical correlations and qualitative data were found between perceptions of task- and person-related workplace cyberbullying prevalence and increased workplace stress, reduced job performance, and a general dissatisfaction regarding the effectiveness of existing public sector culture (legislation, policies and governance frameworks) in dealing with this new workplace phenomenon.” ( page i)
The relationship with workplace stress brings this research clearly in to the purview of occupational health and safety (OHS). However it is also noted that the research resulted from a lack of existing research into
“…employees’ perceptions on workplace cyberbullying and its consequences…” (page i, emphasis added)
The investigation of perceptions is often the nature of research in the social sciences and does not invalidate the research but readers must remember that the research is based on a qualitative, subjective base which limits its practical application.  Many in the media seem to forget this or diminish its significance.  For instance, many articles based on estimates of business confidence imply that this indicates economic problems.  The estimates are of business owners feelings and impressions and are as valid as asking a thousand people “what they reckon’s happening”.  Such perception studies should be supported by additional research to very the broader social context.
Productivity or Profitability
Lawrence addresses the costs estimates for traditional workplace bullying in the thesis’ introduction and includes a statement about the benefits of reducing bullying costs that reflects a common position that deserves questioning.
Lawrence writes that
“These figures suggest a modest 5% reduction in traditional face-to-face workplace bullying would culminate in a saving of nearly $2 billion, that could be used to boost Australia’s workplace productivity.” (pages 4-5)
The reasoning is sound in the context of the public service (the subject of this thesis) but it is suspected that, in the private sector, OHS-related cost savings are more likely to be used to increase a company’s profits or shareholder return than be used to boost productivity.  It seems in many discussions of OHS-related costs that the term productivity is often used when profitability would be a more accurate term.
Cyber-bullying is different
Lawrence makes the very important point that cyber-bullying bullying should be considered separately to the traditional face-to-face bullying as the transmission method is different and the potency of the bullying can be much greater and more pervasive (page 5).  OHS practitioners and professionals need to look closely at this differentiation as it will result in very different control and remediation mechanisms even though the manifestation of the harm may be similar.
Lawrence’s brief Background is a fascinating read due to its different slant on workplace bullying however I am not sure that another researcher’s (Strauss) application of bullying to the conduct of Hector in the Trojan War is reasonable.  As someone who read classical literature at high school and university, Hector’s actions in war were arrogant, shallow and vicious but not bullying.  (That expert on classical literature, Wikipedia, has a different view of Hector: “Homer places Hector as peace-loving, thoughtful as well as bold, a good son, husband and father, and without darker motives.”) And his actions were in the context of a war that lasted over ten years.
In order to define and discuss cyber-bullying Lawrence has to discuss traditional face-to-face bullying.  It seems that she has not missed any of the major research papers on workplace bullying in Australia.  In fact her interest in cyber-bullying tends to allocate a different level of priority and significance to some of the more familiar workplace bullying research.
Lawrence acknowledges the recent discussions in to the role of “incivility” as an element of workplace bullying and her mind-map of workplace bullying terminology (page 47) is very useful.
A major difference between the old and the new forms of workplace bullying is the anonymity that social media technology allows.  This is likely to be an important element in the increased distress that people feel with cyber-bullying.  Lawrence paraphrases research by Suler on this anonymity :
“Suler’s research (2004) found cyber communication created a detached relationship between users that, due to the potential for anonymity, allowed perpetrators to avoid social sanctions (Willard, 2007) and develop unethical, toxic online behaviour that breached social boundaries otherwise observed during face-to-face interaction.” (page 50)
Many companies are struggling to deal with workplace bullying so the news that cyber-bullying may be increasing and require additional control measures is not going to be welcome.  Lawrence writes about the future and provides a very good example of cyber-bullying’s OHS effects and costs, even though this legal case was pursued under sexual harassment:
“…while the amount of research on the workplace cyberbullying on Australian organisations is currently very small (Privitera & Campbell, 2009), there are implied signs that the behaviour is growing fast and that the Australian labour force is at risk of this new cyber workplace phenomenon. For example, this risk to Australian workplaces and organisations has been implied by a Federal Court of Australia case (Poniatowska v Hickinbotham Homes, FMC, 2009). This case found guilty two employees who repeatedly texting and emailing inappropriate messages to a fellow employee, who consequently developed a mental illness, which later transformed into anxiety and depression and cost the organisation in terms of expensive psychological injury claims.” (page 59 – link added)
Dr Lawrence’s thesis is fascinating and offers a new perspective on workplace bullying and the potential OHS risks presented by cyber-bullying. My pedantic annoyance at media reports about this research provided a trail to a, thankfully, public thesis that has expanded my understanding of how cyber-bullying can operate in the work environment.
It is also refreshing to read research into this issue that does not focus on cyber-bullying by high school students.  Lawrence’s thesis gives cyber-bullying a clear workplace (adult?) context that will prevent businesses from dismissing the activity as not work-related.
Finding this thesis has reinforced my commitment to look for original OHS research and documents and not rely solely on media reports.

GovernmentNews: Workplace cyberbullying in Australia's public sector

Workplace cyberbullying rife in Australia’s public service: study

Predstava "Virtualno je stvarno"

Cyberbullying in the Australian public sector is causing stress, reducing job satisfaction and harming productivity, says a new study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
The 2015 study – which involved interviews [and online surveys] with 600 public servants across local, state and federal government – found that 72 per cent had experienced or witnessed cyberbullying over the last six months, with 74 per cent ranking their workplace as highly stressful.
Dr Felicity Lawrence from QUT’s Faculty of Education said the public servants interviewed identified the existence of a “cyber-underground” where a negative online culture had sprung up which allowed some employees get away with freely harassing and bullying others.
“Workplace cyberbullying is overt or anonymous person or task-related bullying where other workers or external clients use technology to instantaneously and publically broadcast a comment, video or picture, anywhere and anytime, to embarrass or defame the target,” Dr Lawrence said.
“Even one defamatory video, post or comment has the capacity to go viral, and once it’s on the internet it is hard to remove and can damage an employee’s reputation, and potentially their career.”
Nearly half of participants reported a negative impact on their work performance and productivity and one-third said it had made them dissatisfied with their job.
Dr Lawrence said public servants were often targets for aggressive and bullying emails, YouTube videos or social media posts because they made decisions that sometimes adversely impacted on staff or clients.
“Government employees view this online behaviour as more intense than face-to-face bullying as cyberbullying crosses work and home boundaries and can follow them from job to job, state to state, and is difficult to stop or remove from the internet,” said Dr Lawrence.
It is not only the incidence of cyberbullying amongst the public servants interviewed that is shocking but the government’s apparent response to it. More than half of those interviewed said their organisation’s anti-bullying strategies were ineffective.
Dr Lawrence said traditional workplace bullying was estimated to cost the national economy up to $36 billion each year and that the cost of cyberbullying could be extremely serious. She called on the federal government to formulate anti-cyberbullying legislation.
Dr Lawrence said that her research had “significant implications” for employers under their duty of care obligations within the Work Health Safety Act 2011.
“One practical solution to mitigate workplace cyberbullying would be to develop federal anti-cyberbullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces,” she said. “Organisations should also be establishing clear policies supported by management along with effective training and education programs to address the issue.”
Her study is believed to be the first one into Australian public servants’ experiences of cyberbullying and the impact it can have on those being bullied.
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Dr Lawrence has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and works with individuals and organisations as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She uses her social science expertise to enhance interactions between organisations and the people who lead and work in them by fostering new insights for diagnosing organisational problems, and build new capabilities and culture.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Canberra Times "Workplace cyberbullying hounding public servants"

Cyber bullies hounding public servants

Noel Towell

Reporter for The Canberra Times

Read more: 
Follow us: @canberratimes on Twitter | CanberraTimes on FacebookWorkplace anti-bullying efforts are failing to protect state and federal public servants.
Workplace anti-bullying efforts are failing to protect state and federal public servants. Photo: Supplied

Cyber bullies are stalking government workplaces across Australia, exploiting a "cyber underground" where they can harass or intimidate their colleagues with impunity, according to new academic research.
The Queensland University of Technology study found workplace anti-bullying efforts were failing to protect state and federal public servants from web-based harassment and abuse.
Victims told the researchers that some online behaviour was more confronting than "traditional" face-to-face harassment, with employees vulnerable to their tormentors even at home and some finding themselves hounded from job to job, and even from state to state.
A set of three studies involving more than 600 public sector workers from across Australia found 72 per cent of participants reported suffering or witnessing cyber bullying at work during the previous six months, with 74 per cent ranking their workplace as highly stressful.
Researcher Felicity Lawrence says that even one defamatory video, post or comment had the capacity to go viral, and once posted online could prove hard to remove and could shatter an employee's reputation and career
Cyber bullying at your department? Tell us
Dr Lawrence conducted surveys and face-to-face interviews during her two-year study with public servants ranging in rank from the most junior to departmental bosses and found that no one was safe from cyber bullying.
One senior manager ended up in hospital after she was powerless to stop a website set up by vengeful employees and dedicated to defaming her, while another public servant quit her job and fled interstate but continued to be pursued online by malicious former colleagues.
"At every level and every position that reported to me, everyone is aware of the potential for cyber bullying and its potential impact," Dr Lawrence told Fairfax.
"Public servants felt they were being bullied in the workplace through work email, telephone call, text messaging and text messages.
"But the No. 1 was email, work email was the thing that everyone mentioned, it can be internal, from other public servants and or from clients and it is at all levels, not just junior staff.
"The fact that this kind of activity can be anonymous, as a manager, as a secretary, as a junior member of staff, you don't know necessarily who is cyber bullying you because people can hide behind technology."
With "traditional" workplace bullying thought to cost the Australian economy up to $36 billion a year, Dr Lawrence believes the cost of cyber bullying on productivity could be "profound".
Many of the victims who spoke to the university said it was difficult to hold their abusers to account, with many anti-bullying protocols and procedures dating from the 1990s hopelessly inadequate to deal with high-tech harassment.
"The public servants I surveyed indicated that there's a kind of 'cyber-underground' that has created a hidden negative online workplace culture where some employees feel they are free to harass and bully one another and yet remain unaccountable for their behaviour," Dr Lawrence said."In this respect, my research has significant implications for employers under their duty of care obligations within the Work Health Safety Act 2011."One practical solution to mitigate workplace cyber bullying would be to develop federal anti-cyber bullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces.
"Organisations should also be establishing clear policies supported by management along with effective training and education programs to address the issue.

Read more:

Dr Lawrence has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and works with individuals and organisations as a consultant, speaker and trainer. She uses her social science expertise to enhance interactions between organisations and the people who lead and work in them by fostering new insights for diagnosing organisational problems, and build new capabilities and culture.