Could your company's social media channels become a forum in which the public threaten and harass your employees?
A recent Ontario labour arbitration concluded that an employer had failed to protect its employees from discrimination and harassment via its Twitter account. While the arbitrator recognized the value to businesses of having a social media presence, he acknowledged that the Twitter account had become a forum in which people could harass, demean and belittle employees interacting directly with the public. The abuse included racist and homophobic remarks, vulgarity, and death threats.
"Exposing employees to this sort of treatment can have devastating effects on their mental health," says Andrew Harkness, WSPS' strategy advisor, organizational health initiatives. "Public harassment and shaming are a particularly virulent form of bullying, and the psychological consequences can be severe. Humiliation, stigmatization, powerlessness in the face of public accusations, all these can lead to feelings of failure and worthlessness, which in turn can cause high stress, anxiety and depression."
For any workplace that already has or is planning to launch interactive social media channels (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blogs), Andrew offers these suggestions to protect employees from public harassment.
- Assess the current and potential level of risk, and create an inclusive process to identify ways of protecting employees from public harassment. Involve employees who have already experienced or are at risk of harassment on social media.
- Review your violence and harassment policy and program. Is it comprehensive enough to address the hazards identified in your risk assessment?
- Review how you handle complaints. The arbitrator described the employer's Twitter feed as "a surrogate public complaint process." Does the public have a dedicated channel for making legitimate complaints, such as an email address or online form that social media staff can direct them to? Are all complaints handled in a timely and respectful manner?
- Review your incident investigation process. Does it taken into account incidents involving public harassment and shaming? Does it allow for the high-speed turnaround times expected by people communicating via social media?
- Reaffirm with all employees the company's standards of behaviour and customer care, especially when in public or dealing with the public.
- Train managers, supervisors and employees on
- what constitutes violence and harassment, how to report possible incidents, and what practices are in place for responding to them
- how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental disorders and provide appropriate assistance (see "Mental Health First Aid" )
- Ensure social media staff have training and skills to prevent situations from escalating, and to redirect complaints to the right process, person or department.
- If an employee is being harassed or shamed on social media, figure out exactly what triggered it. Don't fall for "If it's on video, it must be true." Videos and photos capture only a moment. Investigate thoroughly and assume the employee is innocent - or at least had good reason for the behaviour - until proven otherwise.
How we can help
- Learn more about mental health and the workplace at WSPS' online mental health resource page. Among the offerings: e-courses, downloads, articles, and videos.
- Sign up for Mental Health First Aid, a 2-day course available onsite or in a classroom setting.
- Register for one of five upcoming Networking and Knowledge Exchange (NKE) sessions on mental health.
- Talk to a consultant about how to create a healthy workplace, including implementing CSA Z1003, Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Contact Customer Care: 1-877-494-WSPS (9777); firstname.lastname@example.org.