June 13, 2016

Creating safe spaces

Research at the University of Calgary provides answers to common personal security problems, from workplace bullying to Internet security to domestic violence.


One in every six people in Canada has been bullied at their place of work and one in every five has witnessed a colleague being bullied. It’s usually subtle behaviour like rudeness, hostility, intimidation or getting in the way and impeding someone’s work. People who bully can include bosses, co-workers and clients.

Why so rude? Breaking down office bullying

“Today bullying amongst adults remains in the closet,” says UCalgary alumna Linda Crockett, the founder and CEO of the Alberta Bullying Research, Resources and Recovery Centre. “Similar to domestic violence and sexual assault, bullying in the workplace and elsewhere is hidden and silenced by those who dismiss, shame, and blame the targets.”

In most cases of bullying in a place of work, the behaviour includes verbal instead of physical abuse and it causes psychological rather than physical harm. This bad behaviour can take a number of different forms, from sexual harassment to discrimination, gossiping, spreading rumours or isolating someone. 

“Similar to domestic violence and sexual assault, bullying in the workplace and elsewhere is hidden and silenced by those who dismiss, shame, and blame the targets.”

Safe place


In fair, positive workplaces, it’s less likely that people will be aggressive. But in high-stress environments, where there are demanding workloads or employees are treated unfairly by their supervisors, people can become abusive. “Some people just have naturally better interpersonal skills and better self-control,” says Sandy Hershcovis, associate professor in human resources and organizational dynamics at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “Not everyone who is treated unjustly is going to become aggressive.” Hershcovis researches all kinds of workplace mistreatment, including bullying, abusive supervision and plain old incivility, which includes behaviours like eye rolling, ignoring someone or dismissing their ideas.

“There are lots of reasons why people are bullies," Hershcovis says. "Sometimes it’s just personality. You have a bad apple, a person with a chip on their shoulder and they want to mistreat everyone. But more often than not it’s an interaction between the person and the environment and sometimes even the target themselves.”

While most organizations have policies aimed at supporting respectful workplaces, often they don’t have “a lot of teeth,” says Hershcovis. And often if you report someone, they will retaliate. “Unless there’s pretty clear evidence that the person behaved abusively, reporting can actually make it worse,” she says, adding: “I know that’s not very good news.”

According to Hershcovis, the most common and best response is to quit the job or transfer out of that work environment. “That’s not what people want to hear,” she says, “but that’s what tends to be the most effective.” While training can increase civility, respect and engagement in the workplace, it’s expensive so it doesn’t always occur. Most people just end up venting to their colleagues and dealing with the incivility on their own. 

“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that people don’t just sit back and take it, they’ll get even,” says Hershcovis. “They find ways to get back at the perpetrator regardless of who that perpetrator is. Even if it’s a supervisor, people can be pretty creative in terms of how they get their revenge.” People might lower their performance, forget to pass on messages or other things that can impede the perpetrator’s performance.

Workplace mistreatment can hurt the co-workers who witness it.




A study looking at the effects of either confronting or avoiding a tormentor finds that while you’re likely to “re-experience incivility” either way, the results can change depending on how you react. “There is some cathartic effect to confronting,” says Hershcovis. “It doesn’t get rid of the incivility but it helps you get over it. You’re more likely to move on, forgive them and not get these negative health effects. When you avoid them, you continue to re-experience the incivility and you ruminate about it more, you think about it and you don’t do anything about it.”

Workplace mistreatment can also hurt the co-workers who witness it. “They’re just as negatively affected in terms of their wellbeing and their job satisfaction,” Hershcovis says, adding that co-workers are likely to punish the perpetrator on behalf of the target. “When people witness other people being mistreated they get upset about it and they try to do something to help out the target against the perpetrator.” Another study, in a restaurant setting, found that servers who were mistreated by one customer received higher tips and better evaluations from the other customers.

Things to remember:

  • Incivility and bullying at work can affect your health. Confronting the person may not stop the behaviour but it could make you feel better.
  • Bullies can be bosses, co-workers or clients. Bad behaviour is more likely in workplaces where employees are treated unfairly.
  • Targets of incivility or bad behaviour will try to get revenge. Co-workers are also likely to try to punish the person who is behaving badly toward a target.

Looking at cybersecurity

The next time you turn on your computer or click a link on your phone, consider this: anytime you go online, you’re making a decision about how much privacy you’re willing to give up in exchange for whatever product, service or information you’re receiving. 

“If you want to be completely private, then you should not go on the Internet. Full stop,” says Rei Safavi-Neini, AITF Strategic Chair in Information Security, computer science professor in the Faculty of Science and director of the Institute for Security, Privacy and Information Assurance (ISPIA) at the University of Calgary.



“When you go online, you are leaving a footprint that says a lot about you. All the research has shown that people are willing to give away some of their privacy because of the services that they’re going to get. But it is important to be aware of privacy and make conscious decisions. What are the implications of what you’re doing and what are you going to get for what you are losing?”

Undergraduate student Caitlyn Ryan is studying how to help keep people safe while using the Internet.  Ryan is in her last year of studying information security at UCalgary. “We've taken different approaches to security – some from an attacker's viewpoint and, conversely, from a defender's viewpoint – and used them to discuss varying security problems and solutions,” she says. “We're constantly being told to use ‘strong’ passwords and practice ‘safe’ browsing. Studying computer science, and especially information security, established a ‘why’ to this advice.”

What happens online stays online — forever

Whatever you post on the Internet will stay there forever, and that can hold true for what others post about you too – whether positive or negative. “One of the best things you can do is watch what you post online,” says Emily Laidlaw, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary and author of Regulating Speech in Cyberspace. “But sometimes you don’t have control over that because people are posting things about you.”

Cyber-bullying can cause tremendous harm. “The victim has no escape – they can be reached at any time, at any place,” says Allyson Cairns-Walji, a law student at the University of Calgary. “In many online communities, abusive and threatening comments are socially acceptable and even rewarded behaviours, and if a victim speaks out, the retaliation can be extreme.” 

If you are being cyber-bullied or shamed, you can try contacting the person who is posting the content. “But often, trying to engage with trolls is not going to be particularly effective,” says Laidlaw. You can also approach the host of the content, such as Twitter or Facebook, to see whether or not the post can be removed because it violates their terms and conditions.

But the best course of action may be to hire a company to scrub the offensive content. “The reality is, some of the best ways to handle this are outside the legal system,” she says. “If there are all these horrible things posted about you on a social networking site, companies can scrub that content so it doesn’t appear on search results.”

“The law is being treated as a very blunt tool and we need a much more interdisciplinary engagement to really tackle the problem of online abuse.”

Removing it gets more difficult if the shaming has gone viral, says Laidlaw. “We still have a lot of work to do with the law to address that issue,” she says. There are new criminal code provisions that target so-called “revenge porn” – the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images – but for the law to evolve and keep pace with the harm that can be caused through technology, Laidlaw says we need “a really nuanced discussion.”

“The law is being treated as a very blunt tool and we need a much more interdisciplinary engagement to really tackle the problem of online abuse,” Laidlaw says. “We’ve hit a point where it’s tipping out of control. Some very serious harm is happening to a lot of individuals and there has been insufficient progress at helping them.”

Human rights have traditionally been viewed as a relationship between governments and their citizens. But Laidlaw is exploring how the Internet is giving businesses and other private entities an impact on human rights. She’s researching where the law ends and where corporate social responsibility may begin and how that intersection could create a new way to regulate freedom of speech on the Internet.

Things to remember:

If you’re cyber-bullied or shamed:

  • Contact the host of the content. If the post violates terms and conditions, the host will probably remove it.
  • Hire a company to remove the content from search results. While the post itself will still exist online, specialized companies can “scrub” it from showing up in search results.
  • Legal recourse is difficult. You could look for a legal basis to sue someone over a post, but this can be difficult, especially if the post is anonymous. Cyber-shaming doesn’t fit existing legal categories.


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From The Conversation:

One in five youth see unwanted sexual content online, says new research

12 ways to keep your kids safe from sexual encounters online

Why sexting must be on the curriculum

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Staying safe at home

Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre, has been researching how to help perpetrators and victims of domestic violence for 20 years. Babins-Wagner is also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Social Work at UCalgary and an alumna (MDIPL ’05, PhD ’11). “Treatment works,” she says. “The biggest reason why people don’t seek services is because they don’t believe that they’re going to get results or that treatment is going to make a difference.”

Babins-Wagner finds the best results come after an average of six individual counselling sessions followed by specialized counselling for men, women, abusers and victims. “Most people who are abusive really don’t want to hurt their partner," she says. "They care about them and they’re quite ashamed about their abusive behaviour. There is a small group of people who are abusive in an attempt to control.”

Those who are abusive learn through counselling how to identify patterns of behaviour that put them at risk of abusing again, and how to prevent and change those behaviours and how to change cultural and societal attitudes that support abuse. 

The best way to create a healthy dad is to start cultivating healthy gender norms and healthy relationship skills with adolescents.

During counselling, victims learn that the abuse can stop. “If it’s been going on for a long time it’s really hard to trust that the abuse may end and how to manage it if does, and how to manage it if doesn’t,” Babins-Wagner says. “What can you do to help your partner flag this and re-engage in counselling if you see things beginning to go back to the way they were?”

Researchers are also uncovering how to prevent domestic violence in the community. “One strategy includes investing in positive father involvement,” says Lana Wells, associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work, the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the creator of Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence. Wells’ work has influenced the Alberta government’s framework entitled Family Violence Hurts Everyone: A Framework to End Family Violence in Alberta.

 “We need more fatherhood programs," says Wells. "That means training for professionals, including teachers, social workers and nurses, so that when they work with a family, their practice is inclusive of the whole family. A healthy dad models healthy relationship skills, takes part in household tasks, co-parents and understands and uses positive discipline.”

Wells says the best way to create a healthy dad is to start cultivating healthy gender norms and healthy relationship skills with adolescents. “If we want to prevent domestic violence in adulthood, we need to reduce dating violence,” she says. “We can do that by building healthy home and school environments that teach youth skills to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Things to remember:

  • Seek treatment. On average, effective treatment includes six individual counselling sessions followed by specialized programs for victims and abusers.
  • Abusers can learn to stop domestic violence. They can learn to identify patterns of behaviour and stop abusing.
  • Supporting adolescents can create healthier dads.  Programs that counter hyper-masculinity messages, such as the Calgary Sexual Health Centre's ‘WiseGuyz’ program, can help boys understand gender equality, human rights and what it means to be a healthy man and father.

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Dr. Sandy Hershcovis, PhD, is associate professor in human resources and organizational dynamics at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. Her research focuses on understanding the social context of workplace mistreatment (e.g., workplace bullying, incivility, and abusive supervision). In particular, she is currently interested in witness reactions to workplace mistreatment with a focus on witness intervention. Find a listing of Sandy's academic papers here.

Dr. Emily Laidlaw, PhD, is assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. She researches in the areas of information technology, copyright and media law, human rights and corporate social responsibility. She has a particular interest in the regulation of intermediaries and the human rights impact of new technologies. Find a listing of Emily's academic papers here.

Dr. Rei Safavi-Neini, PhD, is professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Science. Her areas of research include cryptography, network security, privacy enhancing technologies and digital rights management. Learn more about Rei 's work here.

Lana Wells is the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence and associate professor at the Faculty of Social Work, leading Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence. Shift’s goal is to significantly reduce and prevent domestic violence. Lana has also helped develop a comprehensive strategy to engage men and boys in violence prevention to advance gender equality. Find a listing of Lana's academic papers here.

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