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Thursday, 31 March 2016

Can good organisational design stop online & offline bullying?

Why training programs don't seem to stop workplace online and offline abuse and bullying

Have you ever been at work, perhaps sitting in a meeting, and finding yourself suddenly watching a display of interpersonal incivility, aggression or bullying and wondered why it was happening?


Shortly after arriving at a large government organisation, I was invited to the division's bi-annual meeting with all EL2 and Band 1 managers. In the first morning session, two EL2s started shouting abuse at each other, in fact, one individual got out of his chair. It seemed clear in listening to the shouting that at least one of the protagonists was very obviously extremely frustrated while other appeared very bored, and slightly amused.

No-one said anything; we all sat and watched, and waited for one of the division’s leaders to step in and stop the abuse.
Courtesy of

After a short period (probably about 30 seconds or so) the horrified Band 2 got to his feet and asked both individuals to please stop arguing. After a short cessation, the argument recommenced. One of the Band 1s got to his feet and quietly said “Look, that’s enough. If you need to take this off line to work this out then I’ll help mediate, but this is not the place or time to have this conversation.” Both individuals quietened down, but the rest of the day was pretty much taken up with a buzz of conversation about the argument, what had set it off, and who was siding with whom. 

I honestly actually can’t remember if any work was done that day – I’m sure it was, however I do remember quite a bit of discussion that occurred at my table regarding the fight. Apparently, a number of hostile and potentially abusive emails and telephone calls had been shared between the two protagonists over the proceeding months about a particular issue (both individuals lived and worked in different states). The hostile online communications had then escalated into a face-to-face shouting match pretty much the moment they both sat in the same room together.

Training is traditional aimed at the individual and their behaviour

Workplace bullying research has found that online aggression escalates offline behaviours, and vice versa (AVG Technologies’ Digital Diaries study, 2013), while these types of workplace behaviours tend to arise as a consequence of what is not done rather than what is done (Rayner & McIvor, 2008).

Organisations have traditionally invested many resources, time and effort into developing well written and articulate anti-bullying policies that are then used as the corner stone for a range of good leadership and management, communication, resilience, respect and civility, and anti-bullying courses. Such programs tend to focus on building employees’ awareness and understanding about how to detect and mitigate negative workplace behaviours. 

Some of these training modules will describe and teach the types of workplace behaviours that are expected, how to recognise and deal with workplace conflict, employees’ legislated rights to work in a bully and harassment free work environment, and the impact of aggression and bullying behaviours on well-being, job satisfaction and productivity.

Generally speaking, these training modules represent a tool-kit “take-away” that the employee can later pull out and use when seeking to advocate and model respectful workplace behaviours.

Such training programs, and tool-kits, have the capacity to be perilous to employees, particularly for individuals returning to workplaces that are characterised by normalised negative behaviours, such as verbal incivility, hostility and abuse. In such cases, the freshly inducted individual who, in isolation, attempts to model or initiate the changed behaviours in their group or team may find themselves on the receiving end of increased levels of aggressive and bullying workplace behaviours from perpetrators who, frankly, would like to maintain the status quo and the control.

One of the reasons these workplace resilience, respect, leadership, or anti-bullying programs lack the leverage to change anything across the organisation is due to the assumption that negative workplace behaviours will reduce if individuals, in isolation, are taught to identify harassment, aggression and bullying, are clear about their employment rights, and can therefore confidently respond to the behaviour. Generally speaking, traditional intervention programs are built on the premise that workplace aggression and bullying arises as a consequence of poor interpersonal skills and lack of resilience by individuals.

However, research has confirmed this assumption is flawed (Salin, 2003; Pearson & Porath 2005; Rayner & McIvor, 2008; Fevre, Lewis, Robinson, & Jones, 2012; Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2011).

Who trains the organisation?

Targets of workplace abuse, bullying and harassment are in fact more likely to be frustrated by the organisation’s response mechanisms, particularly those measures developed to protect the target from further abuse. Indeed, organisations are generally perceived as being unable or unwilling to develop or implement such measures and processes.

Organisations can change their responses by developing an integrated approach that cross all strata within the organisation, where the “individual, job, organisational and societal levels [are] required to tackle workplace mistreatment” (Hodgins & McNamara, 2014, p.65). This model aligns with current research that has found employee well-being is a by-product of “interacting influences that include the physical and psychosocial environment, including aspects of the design and management of work and its social and organisational contexts. Bullying and incivility are complex organisational problems, although manifesting at the level of individual behaviour” (Hodgins & McNamara, 2014, p.65).

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.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Workplace cyberbullying and Natural Justice

How to make procedural fairness and natural justice work for you when you're dealing with anonymous workplace cyberbullying

Image courtesy of
Research into the concept of perceived organisational support (POS), or employees' perceptions as to "the extent to which the organization values their contributions and ...well-being" indicated a mediating effect between high POS levels and lowered staff resignations, workplace harassment and bullying. One of the strongest antecedents of POS is procedural fairness.  

How does natural justice apply to me at work?

Natural justice imposesa code of fair procedure, and regards every Australian citizens' right to an unbiased and fair hearing (audi alteram partem). It imposes a legal requirement on potentially adverse government decision-making processes and can therefore apply to decisions regarding matters such as the cancellation of a licence or benefit, employee dismissal, disciplinary sanctions, or the publication of a report that damages a person’s reputation.

Procedural fairness is often viewed as a crucial element reflective of an organisation's corporate values of mutual respect and ethical behaviour, and supports the decision making process for potentially adverse employment matters such as workplace bullying investigations and breaches of the code of conduct etc.

Procedural fairness relates to (1). distributive justice - fairness of outcomes, (2). procedural justice  - fairness of processes, and (3) interactional justice - fairness in interpersonal dealings. It is perhaps no surprise to anyone that employees’ perceptions of organisational justice influences work behaviours (reflected through work attitudes, performance and job satisfaction).

Can procedural fairness, or natural justice, assist employees dealing with workplace cyberbullying matters, particularly anonymous online bullying?

Image courtesy of 

Dear diary, how I defended myself against a workplace cyberbully by using the principles of natural justice

Samm accepted the promotion of senior project manager in a high profile organisation, which prompted the incumbent acting manager to leave for a job in another agency. Within the first month, internet postings appeared accusing Samm of landing the job by sleeping with her new boss, including explicit photos showing the back of a woman’s head with a hairstyle similar to Samm’s. Other posts, together with anonymous emails, started appearing on a daily basis, ostensibly from Samm’s former colleagues alleging Samm’s sexual proclivities and linking them to past work performance ratings. An anonymous website emerged, together with the allegations, photos, posts and emails. Samm felt powerless and defenceless, yet decided not to respond, judging this would only inflame matters.

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However, Samm’s reticence resulted in an unforeseen outcome. Her new boss, colleagues and staff believed her lack of response indicated managerial weakness and implied the allegations were credible. Consequently, Samm was cold-shouldered. Samm’s professional reputation was being hacked by an ICT savvy group.

Sam decided to defend herself so that her side of the story was heard (natural justice). 

Firstly, Samm recorded the posts, emails and website commentary including dates and times and reported the abuse to the police under the Crimes Act, regarding internet stalking, or publishing of material, to or about a person by post, telephone, fax, text message, email or other electronic communication. Police resources can track down anonymous cyberbullies. She then asked the agency’s ICT area to block the emails, and asked them to help her with her online privacy settings. Samm followed this up by reporting the abuse (together with the recorded material) to her agency’s HR area and asked if they could investigate the matter as the behaviour violated the organisation’s code of ethics and State WHS legislation. Lastly, Samm contacted the Internet service providers and asked them to trace and remove the abusive content as it violated the providers’ anti-abuse policies.

Finally, Samm asked her new boss to arrange a corporate meeting so she could set the record straight with her co-workers. Her boss was happy to comply as the cyberbullying was tarnishing his reputation as well as the organisation’s reputation.

At that meeting Samm asked people to imagine that they’d accepted a job for which an incumbent employee had been considered, and to imagine that on their arrival their reputation was trashed by anonymous online postings, emails and website commentary where the only recourse was to sit tight or escalate the flaming. “How can I convince you I’m telling you the truth? All I can say is that these cyberbullying posts and emails are baseless lies.” Sam talked about the actions she had undertaken to defend herself, with help from the police, Internet providers, and the agency's ICT area. Samm’s honesty, authenticity and courage created a circuit breaker and helped co-workers to think objectively about the situation. Many apologised to Samm for making assumptions and recognised that this type of workplace cyberbullying could potentially happen to them.

Vignette courtesy of Dr Curry "Beating the workplace bullying" and amended by Dr Lawrence to suit Australian audiences.

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.

Monday, 7 March 2016

How to deal with workplace cyberbullying

Cyberbullying at work can be highly stressful, create job dissatisfaction and lead to reduced well-being and productivity.

While an international definition of workplace cyberbullying has yet to be recognised, researchers generally agree that workplace bullying using technology is the capacity of abusive and/or defamatory content to rapidly go viral, and hurt, embarrass or defame the target(s). 

Perpetrator(s) have the capacity to use technology to hide their identity and remain anonymous, thereby creating a power imbalance. In these instances, removing posts, images or videos from anonymous websites can take time to remove. 

Given its capacity to follow people from work to home, job to job, workplace cyberbullying has an even greater potential to impact a target’s well-being, reputation and job security 

A 2013 international business survey across 10 countries and 4000 participants found workers generally defined workplace cyberbullying as the dissemination of embarrassing work-related photos, and the sometimes covert posting of negative or unpleasant criticisms about a colleague’s appearance or work abilities through voicemail, instant messaging, social media or sms. 

Unwanted romantic advances, stalking, and secret online discussions about colleagues were also described.
Image courtesy of

Critically, cyberbullying was also reported as escalating workplace confrontations and leading to heated face-to-face or online exchanges.

Without intervention, negative workplace behaviours will always escalate up through a violence continuum, with percolating, low-levels of discourtesy and disrespect generating into forms of online and offline intimidation, harassment and bullying, and ending in retaliation, cyber assault or physical aggression (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2011). 

“Without intervention, the violence continuum will always escalate, always” 
Rosie Batty, 2015 Australian of the Year, 
QandA, 2015, February 23

Interrupting disrespectful, abusive, and harassing workplace behaviour is reliant on authentic and reliable managerial support and resolution processes (Caponecchia & Wyatt, 2011), and is dependant on an organisational culture and climate that’s built on civility, respect and collaborative interpersonal workplace relationships (Mattice, 2015).

However, employees suffering workplace cyberbullying do have options.

You can either ignore the communications, or consider one of the following points listed below.

In considering this list, I strongly recommend also liaising with your ICT area or branch and/or supervisor:
  • unfriend or block the person
  • change online permissions so you can view and/or manage defamatory statements or photos before they’re broadcast
  • update online privacy settings to manage who has read access to your posts 
  • report the person to your manager or supervisor, workplace ICT area, or external website or online service, and/or
  • if you know the person is not malicious and you have a good work relationship, politely and courteously ask them to stop.
If you find yourself dealing with an anonymous perpetrator(s) you may choose to:
  • again, manage your account(s) privacy settings and permissions
  • discuss the problem with friends and colleagues for support
  • change your username, accounts or delete your profile through your workplace ICT area
  • withdraw from the online collaboration forum
  • stop attending the offline events or places, and/or
  • report the problem to law enforcement.

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.