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Cyberbullying within working contexts

Technology has revolutionised and shaped our personal and working lives. Communication, banking, healthcare, dating, shopping, education, travel, gaming, employment selection etc., have all changed as a result of advances in technology. There is no doubt that this has been a force for good; however, the use of technology can be abused and, to paraphrase from a famous film, ‘be turned to the dark side’.

Recent infamous cases of hacking online data and the ongoing need to ensure the safety of children using the Internet attest to the negative side of technology. Yet, it must be borne in mind that technology per se is not at fault here – we need to look at how and why people interact with technology for explanations.

One type of interaction I have been researching with colleagues at Sheffield University Management School (SUMS) is cyberbullying within working contexts. In comparison to traditional workplace bullying and bullying/cyberbullying within school contexts, our understanding of cyberbullying at work is limited. Therefore, rigorous and systematic research into this construct is needed to allow researchers and practitioners a deeper understanding of the nature of cyberbullying and why people engage in it.

Understanding cyberbullying

Two schools of thought dominate our current understanding of cyberbullying. One camp suggests that cyberbullying, because of its unique characteristics, is a different form of interpersonal abusive behaviour. These unique characteristics include the perpetual nature to the abuse, anonymity of the perpetrator and breadth of the potential audience to the abuse. By contrast, other researchers view cyberbullying as the same as traditional bullying, considering it ‘old wine in new bottles’. While these researchers do not discount the unique characteristics of online abuse, they argue these contextual factors more likely impact on target consequences of facing abusive behaviour rather than defining cyberbullying.

Given this bipolar perspective, it is not surprising to find no agreed definition of cyberbullying. Indeed, there is even debate on whether the defining features espoused within offline bullying (frequency, duration, intent and power-differential) also conceptualise cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying and individual/organisational outcomes

It is within this confusing and conceptually challenging research environment that I collaborated with colleagues from Sheffield University Management School (SUMS) (Sam Farley, Carolyn Axtell and Christine Sprigg) on a programme of research aimed at understanding cyberbullying and the implications for individual well-being.

Initially, we were interested in examining the relationship between experiencing cyberbullying, individual mental strain and job satisfaction and whether the impact is more negative as compared to traditional bullying. Further, we also questioned whether negative emotion and fairness perceptions could help explain why experience of cyberbullying relates to outcomes. Our findings from a sample of 331 UK university employees indicated individuals experiencing higher levels of cyberbullying tended to exhibit poorer well-being and job satisfaction than those exposed to lower levels of cyberbullying. In terms of job satisfaction, this impact was stronger when compared to offline bullying. Interestingly negative emotion appeared to act as the explanatory factor between cyberbullying and mental well-being, with perceived fairness as the explanatory factor between cyberbullying and job satisfaction.

Extending this research to a sample of 158 trainee doctors, we found support for the negative impact of experiencing cyberbullying on individual well-being and job satisfaction as well as the role of emotions and fairness in these relationships. Advancing our initial research, we also illustrated the impact of blame attributions within this process. Negative emotion helped to explain the relationship between self-blame for a cyberbullying act and mental strain, whereas fairness perceptions explained the association between blaming the perpetrator and job dissatisfaction.

These two studies provided initial insight into the outcomes of facing cyberbullying, the process of emotions, cognitions and blame attributions targets experience and the impact of this process on the outcomes for the individual and the organisation.

Measuring cyberbullying

Reflecting on our earlier research, we realised that the literature lacked psychometrically sound scales to capture the concept of workplace cyberbullying. As a result, we undertook a 3-year funded PhD program of research to develop a valid and reliable measure assessing cyberbullying across various communication technologies and disparate working populations. Three separate studies, involving a total of 944 respondents from different work settings, were conducted to establish a reliable, valid and conceptually sound17-item Workplace Cyberbullying Measure (the WCM). As far as we are aware, this research is the first to establish a fully validated measurement tool for assessing cyberbullying within working contexts. Our vision is that the recently published peer reviewed paper detailing the scale will be adopted by other researchers, organisations and practitioners for assessing cyberbullying.

The role of bystanders

Currently, I am examining the role of bystanders within cyberbullying contexts. Bystanders are people who witness bullying but are not involved directly as bully or target. Bystanders can discourage or escalate the bullying behaviours by speaking up on the victim’s behalf, or supporting the bully either actively or passively.

With few exceptions, bystander intervention in the context of workplace bullying is relatively unexplored to date.  Yet, bystanders are by far the largest group affected by workplace bullying with some studies finding that more than 80% of employees report having witnessed workplace bullying.

In cyberbullying, bystanders may play a different role than in offline bullying and are more likely to join in the behaviour given anonymity and depersonalisation. Viewing an abusive message is considered as taking part even if the bystander privately disagrees. Bystander behaviour in cyberbullying is more complex than in most traditional bullying with some authors arguing the reduced empathy in cyber-contexts resulting in limited bystander intervention.

Across three studies based on international employee samples (N=766), using a vignette-based design, initial research results have illustrated bystanders were least likely to support the victim and more likely to agree with perpetrator actions for cyberbullying acts when compared to offline bullying acts. It seems that the nature of online communication changes bystander perceptions towards who is to blame for the cause of the behaviour, ultimately impacting on behavioural intentions.

Albeit at an embryonic phase, our understanding of cyberbullying at work is developing. If the pattern seen in offline bullying research is repeated in this context then the next five years should see an explosion of systematic investigation into this phenomenon. Future research should aid understanding of why people engage in such behaviour, why bystanders do or do not intervene and approaches to controlling cyberbullying at work.

This Blog post was written by Dr Iain Coyne, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology. Iain can be contacted on