The recent and tragic death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith has brought into the media spotlight the shocking trend of adolescent cyber bullying. It’s been reported that Hannah was driven to suicide because she was taunted about her weight and
appearance by anonymous users on the social networking site ask.fm. However, cyber bullying isn’t just a growing problem in schools and colleges and for students and young people – it’s also an increasingly common issue in the workplace.
Acas defines "cyber bullying" as "bullying, harassment and victimisation conducted via social networking channels – often using blogs or social networking sites to post photographs or offensive or threatening comments about colleagues."
Whilst the use of social media is an increasingly popular and effective marketing tool for businesses, employers need to be aware that improper and inappropriate use of social media by employees carries tremendous legal risks for their employer.
In particular, an employer is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees which occur in the course of their employment. This may include discriminatory, defamatory or bullying comments posted by employees on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter,
where the employees are using those sites in connection with their employer’s business.
Even if the employee carrying out the cyber bullying of a colleague does so using social media in an entirely personal way and not in connection with their employer’s business, there are still dangers for the employer. The employee’s postings
are likely to cause unrest, poor morale and demotivation in the workplace, as well as potentially causing damage to the employer’s reputation.
Cyber bullying can occur in a variety of ways including posting rumours, threats or embarrassing information on social networking sites; setting up a social networking profile pretending to be the victim and posting hurtful comments or remarks;
stealing the victim’s password and communicating with other people while pretending to be the victim. It’s also important to remember that victims of cyber bullying may not always initially be aware that they are being bullied – for example, where they are
not connected to the bully’s social media account where the discriminatory or other bullying comments have been posted, but where other colleagues are aware.
Nigel Crebbin, a partner in the Berg employment law team, commented:
"Online bullying, as well as being highly unpleasant and immoral, is a real menace for employers these days and it’s important that businesses take steps to tackle the risks head on before problems arise.
So what should you do to limit the risks? We strongly advise employers to have in place a well-worded social media policy, stipulating that the organisation has a zero tolerance approach to cyber bullying and setting out requirements for
employees’ use of social media, both in a business and personal context. It’s also important that the policy is regularly drawn to your employees’ attention, so that they are fully aware of its contents and understand what is and is not acceptable. Even the
best drafted policy will be of no use whatsoever if it’s simply kept in a drawer.
Having a properly drafted social media policy in place however and training your workforce in relation to its use, will reduce the risk of cyber bullying occurring in the first place and will also make it easier for you to take disciplinary
action against any employee who fails to abide by the policy’s requirements."
For more information about any of the above or for practical commercial advice on this or any other aspect of employment law, please contact
Nigel Crebbin of the Berg Employment Team on 0161 833 9211 or email him at
Follow us at Twitter: #BergHR.
The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional
legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.