Cyber bullies are stalking government workplaces across Australia, exploiting a "cyber underground" where they can harass or intimidate their colleagues with impunity, according to new academic research.
The Queensland University of Technology study found workplace anti-bullying efforts were failing to protect state and federal public servants from web-based harassment and abuse.
Victims told the researchers that some online behaviour was more confronting than "traditional" face-to-face harassment, with employees vulnerable to their tormentors even at home and some finding themselves hounded from job to job, and even from state to state.
A set of three studies involving more than 600 public sector workers from across Australia found 72 per cent of participants reported suffering or witnessing cyber bullying at work during the previous six months, with 74 per cent ranking their workplace as highly stressful.
Researcher Felicity Lawrence says that even one defamatory video, post or comment had the capacity to go viral, and once posted online could prove hard to remove and could shatter an employee's reputation and career
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Dr Lawrence conducted surveys and face-to-face interviews during her two-year study with public servants ranging in rank from the most junior to departmental bosses and found that no one was safe from cyber bullying.
One senior manager ended up in hospital after she was powerless to stop a website set up by vengeful employees and dedicated to defaming her, while another public servant quit her job and fled interstate but continued to be pursued online by malicious former colleagues.
"At every level and every position that reported to me, everyone is aware of the potential for cyber bullying and its potential impact," Dr Lawrence told Fairfax.
"Public servants felt they were being bullied in the workplace through work email, telephone call, text messaging and text messages.
"But the No. 1 was email, work email was the thing that everyone mentioned, it can be internal, from other public servants and or from clients and it is at all levels, not just junior staff.
"The fact that this kind of activity can be anonymous, as a manager, as a secretary, as a junior member of staff, you don't know necessarily who is cyber bullying you because people can hide behind technology."
With "traditional" workplace bullying thought to cost the Australian economy up to $36 billion a year, Dr Lawrence believes the cost of cyber bullying on productivity could be "profound".
Many of the victims who spoke to the university said it was difficult to hold their abusers to account, with many anti-bullying protocols and procedures dating from the 1990s hopelessly inadequate to deal with high-tech harassment.
"The public servants I surveyed indicated that there's a kind of 'cyber-underground' that has created a hidden negative online workplace culture where some employees feel they are free to harass and bully one another and yet remain unaccountable for their behaviour," Dr Lawrence said."In this respect, my research has significant implications for employers under their duty of care obligations within the Work Health Safety Act 2011."One practical solution to mitigate workplace cyber bullying would be to develop federal anti-cyber bullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces.
"Organisations should also be establishing clear policies supported by management along with effective training and education programs to address the issue."