Class Act: Cyber-bullying worms its way into the workplace

Intrusion: Emails on work matters can make you feel bullied throughout the weekend and into the night by your workplace.
Intrusion: Emails on work matters can make you feel bullied throughout the weekend and into the night by your workplace.

Over the past month or so, I have written quite a lot about workplace bullying and the way in which neoliberal managerialism sets up a context where workplace bullying proliferates.

Now I want to come back to bullying but this time addressing a different form of bullying: cyber-bullying. We have all heard about cyber-bullying in relation to our children and the risks they face with increasing online engagement, and many of us will be aware of friends or family members who have been bullied through social media.

Cyber-bullying is a growing problem internationally and I suggest that neoliberal managerialism is responsible for its increasing prevalence in the workplace.

In a recent article, Dr Natalia D’Souza defines workplace cyber-bullying as “unwanted or aggressive behaviour(s), perpetrated through electronic media, that may harm, threaten or demoralise the recipient(s), and can occur beyond work time. Because workplace cyber-bullying crosses the barrier between work and home, it can leave people feeling trapped and unable to cope. Cyber-bullying can take several forms, including harassment, cyber-stalking, denigration and exclusion”.

Let’s explore why I believe neoliberal managerialism, particularly as experienced in higher education settings, is likely to be perceived as cyber-bullying.

Our increasingly IT-saturated world creates opportunities for cyber-bullying in ways that impact on staff throughout every hour of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) lives.

Firstly, for the recipient there appears to be no escape. Staff receive emails day and night and in my personal experience, managers have sent emails to me out of hours in evenings (after midnight) and over weekends. More often than not, these emails reinforce my de-professionalisation: I am told my leave application is not approved because it is my teaching trimester (implying that I am unreasonable to ask for leave at this time), I am told that the way I filled in a travel application is incorrect (even though I have done it exactly as has been required and approved in the past) and I have to completely re-do it (and later I am told that the re-submitted version is incorrect and I should have done it the way I had first submitted!).

My de-professionalisation is therefore not just experienced in my workplace, it intrudes into my home life and while I may chose not to reply over the weekend the demands (and my frustration) intrude on my thoughts and invade my dreams at night.

Secondly, neoliberal managerialism operates on the assumption that staff need close monitoring to ensure they do as required. Emails telling me what I am required to do (for things that I have always done in the manner required) imply that I am about to go mad and therefore need reminding of how to behave.

Again, these intrude into my evenings and weekends, polluting my thoughts and keeping me awake at night. These intrusions create a vulnerability in me in that I have to be aware every second of every day (and not just for the 37.5 hours I am legally employed) of what I am doing, how this complies with workplace expectations and how I could justify this to my supervisor in the likely scenario where I am required to do so.

Thirdly, these intrusions create a workplace-wide (public to some degree) perception of staff competence. Recently for example, a senior manager emailed the faculty explaining a certain decision that was made based on an experience with a particular staff member. While that staff member was not named, everyone knew whose actions had resulted in a decision that impacted negatively on all staff.

In reality, the decision and the reasoning behind the decision were unfair as the (public) communication and justification did not share the true situation. That staff member felt trapped, targeted and bullied but had no avenue to respond.

Our increasingly IT-saturated world creates opportunities for cyber-bullying in ways that impact on staff throughout every hour of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) lives. It is important that we do not let this shape our perceptions of ourselves, and that we shape a life outside the workplace that is satisfying and fulfilling.

We need to name the bullying we experience and continue to resist its impact on our lives.