Digital mobbing refers to verbal or behavioral bullying, harassment, or the victimization of persons in environments where communication is conducted through digital technology. In today’s world where remote work has excessively increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, digital mobbing has come to the forefront.
In this article, we will briefly introduce the concept of digital mobbing, provide examples, analyze the concept of digital mobbing under Turkish law, and elaborate on preventive measures.
What is Digital Mobbing?
The word “mobbing” was first used by Ethologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1960s to describe the behaviors of birds trying to protect their home by coming together as a group and attacking larger animals. Mobbing was also used to describe the act of removing the weak bird from the group by keeping it away from food and water.1 However, in today’s world, mobbing is briefly described as patterns of harassment in the workplace. Mobbing is an event that involves pestering, harassing, and wearisome words and behaviors addressed to one particular person in a systematic way.2
Digital mobbing concerns the act of mobbing made through technological and/or electronic devices at some length that causes psychological harm.3 Digital mobbing is also referred as cybermobbing or cyber-bullying, which is defined as “[…] the use of information and communication technologies to encourage intentional, repetitive and hostile behavior of an individual or a group aimed at harming others."4
Consistent behavior that involves harassment, threats, humiliation, stalking, or other negative behavior of an individual or a group using digital technologies are considered digital mobbing.
Digital mobbing eliminates the concept of time and place as it can be made before or after work hours, inside or outside of the workplace. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in Turkey and around the world have started to experience remote work/work from home. While the remote work system brought some advantages (such as saving from time and costs), it also increased the attachment to digital platforms and eventually interpersonal problems moved from physical workplaces to digital platforms.
Examples of Digital Mobbing
The following may be given as examples of digital mobbing:
• Exposing employees to intense messages via applications, e-mail systems, chat rooms, and/or messaging groups involving orders and instructions that lead to psychological oppression;
• Forcing employees to use their personal social media or e-mail accounts to promote the business of the enterprise;
• Forcing employees to contact clients via their own channels;
• Mandatory use of a web camera while working;
• Ignoring one specific person in group meetings;
• Sending e-mails or messages involving harassment or threat;
• Stalking employees through online platforms or harassment in online chat system;
• Excluding one specific employee from online communication platforms;
• Forcing employees to attend meetings at unreasonable times and threaten them with firing; and
• Offending an employee in a group chat, e-mail, or messaging system, etc.
These examples can be multiplied and series of acts that constitute one or more of the above-mentioned examples may be considered mobbing.
Digital Mobbing Under Turkish Law
Under Turkish law, mobbing at the workplace or in connection with work is referred to as a kind of psychological harassment that involves subjecting employees to harmful treatment or emotional pressure through various acts, such as unjust criticism, isolation, disrespect, humiliation, innuendo, or intimidation, followed by the victim's resignation or dismissal. Under the Procedures and Principles for the Prevention of Psychological Harassment in the Workplace,5 mobbing is defined as malicious, intentional, and negative acts or behaviors continuing systematically for a certain period of time that intend to intimidate, pacify, or withhold an individual from working while harming the personal values, professional status, social relationships, or health of the victim/victims. The perpetrator and victim of mobbing should be within the same working environment.
In its decisions, the Turkish Court of Appeals and the Turkish Constitutional Court consistently refers to mobbing as a mass/collective attack aimed at the honor, personality, belief, values, abilities, experiences, knowledge, thoughts, ethnicity, lifestyle, culture, or other qualifications of the targeted person. According to case law, in order for an act to be considered mobbing, the following conditions must be met cumulatively: (i) a certain employee is targeted, (ii) the behaviour continues for a certain period, and (iii) the act is performed systematically. Whether or not these conditions have been met is evaluated separately in each case. With this in mind, any act that an employee dislikes at the workplace cannot automatically be considered mobbing.
Although there is no particular definition or evaluation for “digital” mobbing under Turkish law, there are Turkish Court of Appeal decisions involving allegations of mobbing that have taken place through technology. Additionally, in a Regional Court of Appeals decision,6 it was stated that mobbing can be carried out via messages and e-mails.
In its recent decision, the General Assembly of the Civil Chambers of the Court of Appeals evaluated whether the language used in an e-mail correspondence was polite when deciding on the existence of psychological harassment.7 Likewise, in one of its decisions, the 7th Civil Chamber stated that since an employee is entitled to premiums, determining reachable targets for the employee and communicating with the employee in this regard is considered supervision of the work rather than mobbing even though the plaintiff alleged to be harmed from psychological repression via e-mail and telephone.8 There are also decisions in which the court ruled that mobbing was present, although in these decisions psychological repressions was not made solely through electronic means.9
As use of the remote work system has increased in recent years, we expect a rise in court decisions involving digital mobbing in the following years. In this regard, companies should take the necessary measures to prevent digital mobbing and structure the system in a way that does not create a basis for such behaviors, establish sanctions against perpetrators of mobbing, and provide victims with supportive programs.
Actions to be Taken by Employers
The following preventive measures can be taken by companies to fight against digital mobbing: (i) establishing basic policies and procedures to protect against digital mobbing; (ii) providing principles regarding digital mobbing within existing company procedures; (iii) establishing a hotline and determining the internal application and complaint authorities, methods, and examination procedures for employees who believe they have been exposed to digital mobbing and informing the employees thereof; and (iv) providing internal workshops to educate employees and managers about the matter and raise awareness of digital mobbing.
Additionally, when an employee alleges digital mobbing, the following action points are significant: (i) evaluating digital mobbing complaints in a timely manner; (ii) conducting an internal investigation in a timely manner; (iii) interviewing persons who are or might be related to the matter during the investigation process; (iv) attributing importance to the confidentiality of the persons involved and complying with existing legislation regarding the protection of personal data; and (v) imposing sanctions and giving information.
Importance of Preventive Measures in the Fight Against Mobbing
Digital mobbing is the new façade of mobbing, and its frequency is likely to increase in the future as remote work continues to grow and evolve. Employers should take the necessary measures to detect and investigate complaints regarding digital mobbing. Employers that have already established procedures and policies as well as structures regarding mobbing should update their current mechanisms as to include digital mobbing.