The recent case of Alex Belfield being jailed for cyberstalking his BBC colleagues highlights important employment law issues for employers to consider. Although Mr Belfield was found guilty of stalking four male colleagues, he was also found not guilty of stalking (only harassing) four senior female colleagues, who are now claiming that their employer, the BBC, failed to support them and take appropriate action to protect their health and safety whilst at work.
The women allege that the BBC failed to take appropriate action during the 10-year campaign of harassment by their former colleague and only took steps when a high-profile male colleague, Jeremy Vine, spoke out about the harassment that he also suffered. They have since called for an independent review to be carried out in relation to the way the BBC dealt with the matter.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is the repeated use of electronic communications to harass, stalk or frighten someone. Even though digital harassment takes place online, the psychological effects can be just as detrimental as when the bullying or harassment takes place in person.
The use of social media has, of course, become extremely common in the workplace and it is now possible for anyone to digitally harass others easily given the extensive use of internet-connected devices. Social networking sites, chat rooms, gaming sites and other forums are often used to stalk and harass someone, for example:
What are the effects of cyberstalking?
As part of a cyberstalking campaign, a stalker may harass a victim with content that's simply annoying or inappropriate and more of a nuisance than anything else. In more serious cases, victims may have to contend with content that's disturbing, traumatising or threatening. They may face severe forms of online harassment, including sexual harassment and physical threats.
In almost every cyberstalking case, victims feel annoyed at best and fearful at worst. Confusion, anger and anxiety are common among victims. Some may also experience insomnia or suffer from physical ailments, such as headaches, acid reflux or stomach ulcers, or mental ailments, including depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In extreme cases, they may become suicidal.
What steps can an employer take to prevent cyberstalking in the workplace?
Employers have a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure all staff are provided with a safe working environment. This includes protecting staff from bullying or harassment from their colleagues, as well as from external contacts.
Employers must therefore be proactive about this issue, particularly in an age where remote working has become far more prominent in our daily lives. The impact of the working from home trend may mean that staff feel less connected to their employer and perpetrators may feel they have even greater opportunity to carry out cyberstalking with their actions potentially going unnoticed for longer.
Employers should ensure they have an adequate IT and communications systems policy and procedure. This should outline what is an acceptable and appropriate use of their resources, as well as clearly defining what is not acceptable and what action will be taken by the employer if an employee breaches the policy i.e. disciplinary action.
It is also important to address social media usage, which can be more of a grey area for employers, because social media can extend beyond use of the employer’s resources and be utilised outside of the workplace.
However, if employers take steps to ban access to social media sites from work devices or for anything other than work related purposes, it will limit the employer’s exposure. Case law has been developed that confirms where the offence is committed on a workplace device, they will hold the employer liable for the employee’s actions.
Employers should encourage victims of cyberstalking to report the matter promptly, so that evidence can be collated and reviewed. Making supervisors, managers and senior leaders aware of online etiquette and encouraging them to set ground rules within their team will be helpful to demonstrate the employer has actively taken steps to try and prevent cyberstalking in the workplace.
Employers could also look at what steps they can take to monitor the communications that are exchanged between staff. It is important to check whether employees have first been informed about any monitoring that may take place and to ensure any monitoring carried out is not excessive and ultimately unlawful.
Finally, employers who are concerned by the nature of the threat being posed to their staff (i.e. death threats or any threat of violence) should refer the matter to the police, as the harassment may well be classed as a criminal offence, as well as a breach of internal policies.
If you would like to discuss the potential legal implications for employers dealing with any allegations of bullying or harassment or any other employment matter, please do not hesitate to contact Joseph Oates on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Natasha Smith on email: email@example.com or tel: 01892 515022.
This blog is not intended as legal advice that can be relied upon and CooperBurnett LLP does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of its contents.