You go into work and you?re shaking already, but this time it?s not from a hangover. The person who makes your working life a misery has that look about them again, that look that means you?re not going to get a word in edgeways and everything you say will be wrong. They will publicly humiliate you because they do it every day: they like telling you what you should and shouldn?t be wearing and they take a sadistic pleasure in making you feel insecure. Sometimes they even threaten you with violence. Slowly, your motivation begins to crumble.
Sounds familiar? Well, hopefully it doesn?t but everyone knows workplace bullying goes on and it?s a serious problem. The electronic age isn?t making it any easier either.
Novell has recently released a report which makes this more than clear. Entitled Shaming, Flaming and Blaming: Corporate Miscommunication in the Digital Age, it states that people are being intimidated online, insulted electronically and are wasting valuable time because of junk emails. Granted, everyone sends junk emails if they want to sell absolutely anything at all, and the well-targeted sort are actually quite useful, but they do tend to make demands on your time.
Specifically, the time lost through bullying and time-wasting costs UK business #10 billion per year, according to Novell and Ronin Research. This takes no account of any lawsuit costs that might arise when someone feels they have been constructively dismissed or otherwise electronically harassed, and that is nothing to take lightly. Morgan Stanley in the US will face a legal bill of $60 million if a suit launched by two black employees succeeds. Their case is that they have been racially abused via the company?s email system.
Anybody not yet convinced needs only to reflect that one in seven people who feel intimidated by the email system ends up actually leaving their place of work, incurring recruitment and training costs in their wake. And all in addition to the aforementioned #10 billion.
This is all mildly interesting, but how does it relate to the dealer channel? There are two reasons for computer resellers to take note. First, a dealership is a business and the entrepreneur responsible for it is as likely to come up against the problem as anyone in any other field. Second, and probably more importantly, there might be a few bucks to be made in consultancy here, folks. Interested now?
Both angles need the same approach, as it happens. If a dealer wants to tackle the problem on their own site or elsewhere, they will need to do some consultancy ? whether it is internally or externally makes no difference in this case. The two-pronged approach that applies consists of evaluating the problem, then taking the appropriate action.
There are two reasons to start investigating the problem in the first place. One is that an employee has complained, and the second is that this feature and other coverage has persuaded someone it?s worth doing. In the first instance, the only things to bear in mind are that the grievance needs to be taken as seriously as any other and that the complainant may have an axe to grind, just as in any other complaint situation. Beware the clever Dick who says it?s a special case because it is electronic ? just like copyright, the same rules apply whatever the medium.
A lot of the problem is caused by an under-specified email system, says Novell?s market and sales development manager, Jacqui Forrest. Not all of them are as clever as, say, at Group Wise, which she mentions at random (although she could have mentioned Notes or countless offline readers for remote workers as well). They don?t all have the facility to withdraw a mail that may have been sent in the heat of a moment, nor do they all allow you to write a message and leave it in a pending folder until you?re sure you want to send it. Both of these facilities can head off a conflict, since 50 per cent of the survey respondents admitted to having sent an angry email on the spur of the moment and agreed they would respond in kind if they received one.
A vital addition to selling and installing an intelligent email system is to ensure that the employees are trained in its use. People who do not know that they can delay sending a message will not do so. This also represents a value-add sales opportunity.
This is a short-term technical fix, however, and people who are going to intimidate colleagues will be happy to continue to do so. So there is a need for business consultancy as well as the technical variety; the human resources personnel at a given site need to be made aware of the power an email can have. In the foreword to the Novell report, psychologist Dr David Lewis comments that people take something written down more seriously than an oral message. If it is on their screen in front of them they take it even more seriously.
For this reason, companies using a large number of emails need to evolve some sort of coherent policy on their use and abuse. Sending a vicious email needs to be seen in the same light as sending an obscene message to somebody on company headed paper. Novell itself has written 10 commandments for email use, available as a framework for anyone working out their own policy.
First, there are a few things not to do. Using emails to avoid face-to-face communications is a definite no-no, as is using email as a substitute for managing people. One high-profile case that hit the papers in April concerned a woman who was actually fired over the wires, which is in breach of all but the most arbitrary human resource policies. Hate email is banned, as are sexually and racially biased emails and voicemails, and the use of email when there is no need for written documentation or file sharing is discouraged in general. Interestingly, a number of people in the survey admitted to using email as a means of avoiding contact with colleagues and workplace relations had broken down as a result.
More positively, client companies should be encouraged to ensure that their emails are consistent with the rest of their communications. An obvious but often overlooked point to bear in mind is that a message needs to be clear even to someone whose first language is not English, and users need to consider the fact that not everyone understands our simply scintillating British sense of humour.
General technical advice will also help clients, for example telling them to keep emails to the minimum to take the pressure off the server. Surprisingly large numbers of people do not understand the concept of a bottleneck when it applies to their system. Thinking about an email before sending it is, of course, paramount.
Finally, customers need to remember that their policy needs some sort of clout. The board must understand and adopt it if it is to carry any weight, and grievance and complaints procedures need to be mapped out in conjunction with human resource departments.
Novell also has additional refinements for the classification of emails. For example, if an email is of interest only to admin staff, it has the suffix ?#admin? on the end to save finance, sales and other departments from reading unnecessary materials. There are also agreed mechanisms in place for identifying non-critical emails and separating them from mission-critical information. Stylised versions of these and other guidelines can be offered to clients as a value-added service.
Not that the problem is likely to go away entirely. Emails are stressful anyway, regardless of whether they are made so intentionally. Occupational psychologist Valerie Sutherland suggests that people who suffer from stress anyway will see emails and faxes as more work rather than a means of making their load easier. They are vulnerable to attack from a system, particularly one that they had considered their own domain.
And the workplace bully knows it. Lisa Jensen, director of studies at the London-based Quindo Centre, which supports victims of bullying, says: ?Bullying is an act of cowardice so if someone can find an insidious route they?ll do it.? The psychology of the internet bully is somewhat different, though, from that of the standard intimidator who usually wants to show everyone what a big ... er, ego ... he or she has. The medium is private so there are no public histrionics; the recipient can be in no doubt that the victimisation is entirely personal. For the remote worker who finds the offending message or material entering their own home the result can be particularly chilling.
The way to avoid the problem, as has been said elsewhere, is by sanctions and training to a set system ? does the client understand that their package has an email rules function and do they know how to use it? Intelligent customers will thank resellers for selling them some of the same. Having said that, Novell is the first to admit that its report applies only to the corporate network. The internet, being unregulated, is different. ?The internet tends to regulate itself, it has the icons to clarify when people are joking,? says Forrest, although she is the first to concede that self-regulation works only when people are willing to regulate themselves.
If an employee or a client is being harassed by someone elsewhere in the world on the internet, unfortunately the reseller has to accept that there will be nothing they can do about it. Obtaining details of regional support centres for bullying victims, such as the Quindo Centre in London, or watching out for announcements about charities such as the recently announced Andrea Adams Trust, which will offer a helpline, are just about the only options open. And never forget examples such as that of the recent electronic stalker in the US, who sent obscene messages to his subject but was eventually traced and successfully prosecuted by the police.
It won?t stop altogether, though. The only permanent solution is for someone to take responsibility for managing and filtering the internet. And that looks more or less impossible.
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