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When the England Women’s football team crashed out of the World Cup in July, a swarm of internet trolls took to Twitter in order to direct abuse at Laura Bassett, the player whose freak own goal put paid to England’s hopes in the tournament.
It was the latest in a seemingly endless stream of examples of high-profile women with a social media presence related to their work becoming targets for insults and threats, often from anonymous abusers.
In 2014, for example, two UK internet trolls, Isabella Sorley, 24, of Akenside Hill, Newcastle upon Tyne, and John Nimmo, 26, of South Shields, Tyne and Wear, were jailed for sending abusive messages to Caroline Criado-Perez, who led the successful campaign for a female figure to appear on Bank of England banknotes. Her fellow campaigner, Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, received similar threats, leading to a prosecution and a jail sentence for their author, Peter Nunn, 33, of Bristol.
In view of such cases, what should employers be doing to help and support individuals deal with trolling? After all, many organisations now expect employees to maintain an active presence on social media as part of their day-to-day work. As a result, there is a clear “duty of care” to be met, says Magnus Boyd, a partner at Schillings, the law firm.
“An employee being trolled, courtesy of business-related social media activity, is no different from an employee being shouted at by a customer in-store,” he says. “Employers have a duty to protect their staff and, with proper planning, they can be ready for any eventuality, even the scourge of the online troll.”
Those that fail to protect staff run some serious risks, according to Jonny Gifford, research adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): “Employers who knowingly put staff in the line of fire of a stressful experience without adequate support may be found to be complicit in discrimination,” he says.
And according to Elizabeth Marshall, an associate at Kemp Little, the law firm, if an employee is forced to resign as a result of online hostilities from internet trolls because their managers failed to support them or even turned a blind eye to the abuse, they could have good grounds for a constructive dismissal case.
This is a problem that knows no borders or boundaries. For example a university lecturer in New Zealand, who claims he was cyber-bullied by students, has won the right to challenge his employer, the University of Waikato, for failing to tackle the problem. An employment authority has directed the parties to mediate to resolve the problem.
Meanwhile, a high school teacher in Southern California is taking action against her school district for failing to protect her from sexual harassment by students.
Unfortunately, says Mr Gifford, trolling is an issue that is rarely given much attention by employers, even at organisations with fairly sophisticated approaches to social media. Often, he says, human resources departments are more concerned with monitoring and dealing with employees who step out of line on social media, resulting in damage to the brand’s reputation.
It is also a difficult issue to deal with effectively, says Ms Marshall. “It can be almost impossible to identify and track trolls on any lasting basis. The time and cost involved can be massive,” she says.
There is the additional problem that trolls who get blocked and/or banned from a social media site have a nasty habit of popping up almost immediately in a new guise. “A balance has to be struck in terms of the practicalities of dealing with the situation,” Ms Gifford says.
Most advisers suggest a two-pronged approach. First, dealing with trolls needs to be part of employees’ basic training on using social media in a professional capacity. Showing them how to block unwanted contacts is a good idea, for example.
Most importantly, they should be required to report incidents of trolling to their employer, says Pulina Whitaker, a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a law firm, and the employer should assess whether affected employees require emotional support.
Second, the employer needs a firm plan of response once a report of trolling is received, says Mr Gifford. “If online abuse or threats are directed at employees because of their professional activity, it’s important that the employer gives practical support. For example, helping to get abusive comments taken down from the site and, if necessary, reporting threats to the police.”
By having a plan in place, says Schillings’ Mr Boyd, “the business will be in the strongest possible situation not only to neutralise and gain control of the issue, but also provide support and reassurance to an employee who, after all, was only doing their job”.