Blogs & Comment

Anti-social media

Twitter and Facebook can bring people together, but they can also divide the office.

In the June 13 issue of Canadian Business we spoke to social media elite, Erin Bury about using the technology to build her personal brand. But for some employees these systems have a darker side and some experts have noted a rise in cyberbullying through social media.

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 26% of employees admit to being bullied at work at some point, 9% are currently being bullied and 15% have witnessed it. Some estimates are much higher. Some of the abuse is private bullying like nasty emails or text messages, but the rise of social media has made some of that abuse public. Ignoring one coworker on twitter, not inviting another to a Facebook event and bashing coworkers online are all growing concerns for offices. In Australia, this growing threat has contributed to a new law that would put workplace and cyber bullying under the Crimes Act, meaning anyone convicted could face up to 10 years in prison.

Valerie Cade, workplace bullying expert and author of Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now! has seen evidence of cyberbullying on her own blog, where people come to rant about their horrible experiences at work—often naming companies and coworkers, thus perpetuating the abuse. She says about 90% of the comments left have to be deleted. “People adopt fake names and fake email addresses and they feel powerful, but we need to make the point that a public forum is not the right place to heal.”

Cade says that since social media is still so new, it’s hard for companies to know how to moderate and limit its use. “It’s like when city planners build a sidewalk and people walk on the grass,” she says. “The path that is worn down is where the sidewalk should have been.”

But while these companies are exploring the uses of social media, Cade says internal networks and company social media accounts need to be moderated. “I’d also suggest that companies conduct a confidential survey to see how their employees are feeling, and to ask about the abuse their experiencing,” says Cade. “Staff members like to get involved and see that they have a voice.”

And being bullied at work isn’t just hard to deal with emotionally; there can be actual physical side effects. The stress caused by bullying drive up the body’s levels of stress hormone cortisol. This causes “enhanced stress sensitivity, fatigue and pain.” It increases inflammation responses and decreases the strength of the immune system.

But what if the bully is also your boss? Studies show about 70% of workplace bullies target their subordinates. In this case, Cade suggests bringing in a third party to conduct research, but admits that it’s a challenging situation. “We hear about teens and bullying in the news all the time. Adults are far more embarrassed to bring it to the surface,” she says. “But companies won’t do anything about it unless employees force them to.”

If companies aren’t yet seeing the detrimental effects of cyber bullying, they are at least starting to realize that the organization as a whole needs social media protection. As Marketing magazine recently reported there are companies who are actively seeking out insurance policies to cover damages caused by tweets and posts. They talked to a Vancouver-based insurance lawyer, Eric Dolden, who said that companies are taking a big risk by not setting out clear, documented rules and guidelines for the use of social media by those in their office. Some lawyers are now drafting plans to cover the costs.

Here’s an excerpt: “Dolden said premium prices to cover the use of social media are all over the map, depending on the size of company. He said large companies could pay about $100,000 for a $10-million policy that protects against data loss and liability, though small companies would pay much less.”

How our brain processes gossip:
Some new research out of the journal Science offers another reason to minimize office bullying and gossip by suggesting that hearing something negative about someone literally changes the way others see that person.

Our brain is programmed to pay attention to people we have positive or negative feelings about, and generally not notice any others. Lisa Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, led a team of researchers to look at “binocular rivalry.” They showed different images to each subject’s left and right eye at the same time, and then tracked which image the participant’s eyes travelled to first. The images were of houses and faces. Some of the faces were people participants had been told some gossip about. And while the participants showed no unique reaction to the faces of people they’d heard positive or neutral information about, they recognized the face clearly and quickly.