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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

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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?

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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.

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