How does your institution keep you safe?

The Online Professional, 8 November 2013
The Online Professional, 8 November 2013

I’ve spent much of this year working with an incredible team at Southampton (including Lucy Shipley, Jim Osborne and Graeme Earl, with support from various IT specialists) as well as at York (with my colleague, Tom Smith) implementing the Gender & Digital Culture project. A lot of this effort will come to fruition on Friday when we host our first public event, The Online Professional. The event is running simultaneously at Southampton and York, as well as on the web through my YouTube and Google Plus accounts. Please join us if you can; the specifics of the locations and time are available here.

At this event I will talk in more detail about some of my own experiences (see my post on Savage Minds for some background); Jim, Lucy and I will report on the results of our preliminary survey of 400 professionals; and we will work with our audiences to discuss and begin to develop practical strategies for individuals and organisations to manage the challenges presented by the digital public workplace.

I’ve been asking friends and colleagues to share with me their institutional policies around online safety, so that we can start to build a resource base for reference and establish a baseline for good practice. I’d be very keen for you to have a peek around your employer’s media, communications, gender and diversity, and related policy documents (if you have access to them) and to email me, tweet or comment on this blog about what, if anything, you find pertaining to security in the context of web-based forms of engagement. So far our searches have turned up very little constructive guidance; and in some cases, that guidance is utterly shocking in terms of its total indifference to employee welfare. In at least one instance, the institution is clear that it has no responsibility for the actions of individuals outside that organisation who are victimising its own employees through social media. Although I do believe that others, for example the police, have necessary roles to play in patrolling and penalising abusive behaviour, surely any employer who applies these media in everyday business has at least an ethical obligation to attempt to protect its staff from related harm.

In preparing for Friday’s event, I’ve had a not insignificant number of people ask me whether it’s actually hopeless to bother attending to these issues. The perception seems to be that we’re helpless to respond to online abuse—it’s seemingly too detached, too ephemeral, too easy to perpetrate and too hard to pin down; hence a feeling of pointlessness around developing or trying to enforce any kind of safety-oriented policy. In one recent meeting that I had, a colleague repeatedly stated “I can’t see what can be done here.” Compounding this predicament is a phenomenon that I’ve recently begun to encounter wherein some of the very people who I might otherwise have assumed would be supportive and active in pooling efforts to respond to such problems (especially because they were also targets of abuse) are, instead, derogatory and dismissive—arguing that my concerns aren’t as important as theirs; that my experiences aren’t as bad as those of others.

Perhaps not, but rather than invest our time in ranking the validity of our various claims, I’m hopeful that we could focus on a few things that I do believe will have some positive impact on everyone involved:

  1. The establishment of a supportive and visible community of professionals who are aware of and committed to exposing the nature and scope of problematic online interactions.
  2. The concerted development of real best practice guidelines to manage web-based abuse and to safeguard professionals as they conduct their work online.
  3. Taking a leadership role in attempting to implement these policies, such that they become models for others to follow—spearheading change, rather than being the inevitable outcome of endless cases of employees’ persecution and degradation. In other words, instead of waiting for more high-profile, disturbing cases of online abuse to drive redesign of wellbeing policies, perhaps we could lead that redesign now.

This is what I hope might be discussed and instigated at our workshop on Friday. Please consider attending, listening in, emailing, tweeting or otherwise forwarding us examples of good and bad institutional practice. Your contributions will make a difference—to me amongst many other individuals.

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