Scientists propose a new model to understand cyberbullying in virtual workplaces

Researchers have proposed an Emotion Reaction model of workplace cyberbullying in hopes of better understanding the phenomenon.

The model, outlined in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggests that job-related stress elicits negative emotions like anger, which then result in cyberbullying behavior.

PsyPost interviewed the article’s corresponding author, Ivana Vranjes of KU Leuven. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Vranjes: The introduction of modern technologies in contemporary organisations has profoundly changed our working life. They are an inherent part of the work today and have left their mark on the working processes. These technologies allow workers to implement an increased amount of flexibility and control to their work and to be more efficient than ever before. However, these advantages do not come without a cost. This virtual environment unfortunately also provides people with a new avenue for aggressive conduct, such as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying has been receiving quite some attention in the adolescent literature, in which prominent scholars have explored its antecedents, outcomes and explaining mechanisms, together with its impact on the surroundings involving bystanders, teachers, parents and such. On the contrary, cyberbullying in the work context has not received much scholarly interest. There is still limited knowledge both on its defining characteristics, its prevalence, predictors and consequences. This is an important gap, because both people facing this type of negative behaviour and professionals trying to remediate it are currently left without useful or theoretically sound guidelines. Our goal was to make a first step towards a better understanding of this phenomenon, with hopes of sparking further research into this area.

What should the average person take away from your article?

As our work environment evolves from a physical to an increasingly virtual one, we believe that the phenomenon of workplace cyberbullying will grow in importance. The virtual environment is one that offers an outlet for different emotions, while creating an electronic barrier that minimizes the awareness of the impact of online behaviour. In that respect, it is important to realize the importance of context with regard to negative (online) behaviour.

Often when bullying behaviour at work emerges, this can be traced back to the work context. Healthy workplaces seldom produce bullies. It is in a poor work environment, characterized by a combination of high pressure and a lot of uncertainty and conflicts that this type of aggressive behaviour prevails. This environment is then bound to evoke many different negative emotions in employees. Online environment creates its own dynamic, allowing a more overt and open expression of these negative emotions. This is because it evokes the sense of anonymity and lack of regard for the person on the other side of the screen. This combination of negative emotions with an impersonal online environment is a dangerous cocktail, that can result in cyberbullying behaviour amongst colleagues.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There is still much more work to be done with regards to this understudied phenomenon. For instance, it would be interesting to better understand the dynamic between the offline and the online bullying behaviour at work. Does one type of behaviour always lead to another? Do they sometimes occur independently and if so, what makes people choose for the online context over the offline one and vice versa? Is there a personality characteristic that we can link with that? These are just some of the many questions still left unanswered.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Many of the propositions put forward in this paper are still only on a theoretical level. There is still more empirical work needed to confirm these propositions and to further our understanding into processes contributing to workplace cyberbullying.

The article, “The dark side of working online: towards a definition and an Emotion Reaction model of workplace cyberbullying“, was also co-authored by Elfi Baillien, Heidi Vandebosch, Sara Erreygers, and Hans De Witte.