E-mail bullying on the rise

Mar 31 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

E-mail bullying is on the increase, according to new research by internet job site reed.co.uk. One in six workers have experienced bullying by email, according to the poll of over 3,400 people.

Surprisingly, the higher up you are in the hierarchy the more likely you are to be bullied by email. While 15 per cent of secretaries have experienced email bullying, this increases to more than one in four - 28 per cent - of all Directors.

However, only four per cent of workers admit to being email bullies themselves, demonstrating how easy it is to bully people by email without even realising it.

Examples of email bullying range from unfair comments sent by managers who want to avoid face-to-face confrontation, to unwelcome personal references.

"I was bullied by my boss who would send me insults and belittle me by email", complains one female administrator from London, "in the end I resigned".

For others though, the problem becomes personal: "I was harassed by another girl in the office who kept emailing rubbish about my personal life. I reported her to the personnel department."

In three per cent of cases workers said that the victimisation got so bad they decided to quit their jobs rather than face more abuse. "I am still off work at the moment", says a Scottish secretary who was the victim of a malicious email bullying campaign by her boss.

Email bullying raises stress levels at work and can drastically affect productivity. Nearly a third, 32 per cent, confront the bully, 22 per cent talk it through with friends or managers.

Regionally, email bullying is most common in offices across the South West, where more than one in five - 21 per cent - experience this form of abuse. London is close behind, with a fifth of the capital's workforce bullied by email. East Anglians are least affected, where email bullying is a problem for just one in nine workers.

Workers blame the characteristics of email itself for the growth of this problem. It is simply too easy to send emails in the heat of the moment, respondents say, and also too easy to use email to avoid talking to someone face to face.

Respondents highlighted two potential solutions. They felt clearer disciplinary procedures would help raise awareness of the problem and crack down on persistent offenders, while workforce training in email etiquette would help prevent problems arising in the first place.

Dan Ferrandino, Director of reed.co.uk, said: "It seems that email bullying is getting worse, as economic pressures raise office temperatures across Britain. Surprisingly, top bosses claim to be bullied most, perhaps because they are juggling competing pressures from all sides.

"The real problem lies in the medium itself, however. It is just too easy to send an email while tempers are running high, ignoring the effect it might have. Emails lack the visual and sound clues built into most other methods of communication - from face to face meetings to telephone calls - making it much more likely that people may take offence."

"Everyone needs to take care they don't become an email bully themselves. It's always worth taking time to reflect what you have written before pressing the send button."

Some tips from Reed on handling email bullying

  • Try to avoid an escalation into all out email war. Think carefully how to reply to the email
  • Talk to colleagues or friends if you feel hurt. Don't bottle it up
  • Ask for time to discuss your feelings with the sender, face to face if possible
  • Emails can feel much worse than the sender intended: don't immediately launch into accusations
  • Give the sender the chance to explain what they meant
  • Try to work together to resolve underlying issues
  • Seek agreement on a less abrupt way of communicating in future
  • Keep a record of exchanges, so if the problem persists you can discuss it with a senior member of staff.