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Occupational Hazard

Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Athabasca University, 2017


by Heidi Staseson

When pondering the prototype of the human “bully,” society’s once-popular archetype of the burly sand tyrant named “Biff” and his pastime for picking on 98-lb.teen weaklings has evolved significantly from the beach scenes of 1950’s comic books. In fact, with the rise of technology, the “Biffs” of the past are the least of people’s worries; yesteryear’s bully has morphed and attached itself to a more sombre and serious trend: cyberbullying.

Vitriolic spewing is especially ubiquitous on social media. And many of us are complicit in some way – as perpetrators or inactive witnesses to attacks, or even as unwitting victims who stay silent post-blast. Calgary high school guidance counsellor Marc Osenton, an AU Faculty of Health Disciplines graduate, says part of the problem is the newer phenomenon of being “turned on all the time” – especially the teens he sees, who take to social media like birds to breadcrumbs.

While news about online bullying is rife in the media, it is rarely referred to in the context of the virtual workplace. At last September’s 2016 Graduate Student Conference, one AU doctoral student, Peggy Flanigan, shed new light on this lesser known phenomenon. A senior manager with Calgary Police Service, Flanigan was one of 43 students who presented their research, in-person or online, at the Edmonton event titled Research Without Borders, hosted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Athabasca University Graduate Students’ Association.

“There’s a lot of literature about virtual teams. But there is no literature — not one
study — on bullying on virtual teams.” ~ Peggy Flanigan, Calgary Police Service

Flanigan’s presentation entitled ‘Does workplace bullying happen on virtual workplace teams?’ explored the phenomenon from an introductory standpoint with clear-cut definitions. She incredulously pointed out the lack of current research addressing the topic, and relayed her intent to explore the phenomenon further.

“There’s a lot of literature about virtual teams. But there is no literature — not one
study — on bullying on virtual teams,” said Flanigan, who, at press time, noted the dearth of research had not changed.

Examples include gossip, pranks, exclusion and, even more vicious, online situations whereby others take credit for your work or limit your access to requisite job tools. And all are executed online — via email, instant messaging, teleconferencing or video.

“All of these are typical kinds of [workplace] bullying behaviours … You name it, it’s there in spades,” she posited.

“People being talked down to, or behind their backs, [using] disrespectful, offensive, abusive, impatient or belittling language. If you see any of these … you’re actually seeing bullying behaviour on your team.”

Flanigan asked the audience to consider that “every single one of us has been on a virtual team.”

Needless to say, people leaned in with interest. They were, after all, part of the Athabasca online community.

*This article first appeared in the 2017 issue of OPEN magazine, published annually by Athabasca University.

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