When a Bad Review Is Actually Cyber-Bullying

Nicole Dominique Le Maire Business Survival Strategies


If you decide to open a business, you should already have a well-developed thick skin. While you strive to always give the best service, you can’t please everyone always, and customers will eventually criticize your business either in person or via review websites. Often, angry customers will log into websites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon to post negative reviews of a business after an unsatisfactory experience.

Research indicates that people will more likely tell their friends and colleagues about a negative experience than a positive one, which means that business owners must work especially hard to satisfy each customer. Due to the seemingly anonymous nature of the internet, people will often express exaggeratedly harsh opinions of a business. In short, business owners will at some point endure harsh criticism.

20140903-entrepreneurfail-ChecksandImbalancesMuch of this criticism is within the rights of the unhappy customer to express. However, I want to highlight a few protections that business owners have from unfair criticism that comes in the form of cyber-bullying.

First, I want to take a moment to explain cyber-bullying and the law. In North America and much of Western Europe, people like to emphasize their right to free speech. This right serves as the backbone of civil liberties and democratic and free society, but it does have its limits. Thanks to freedom of speech, the government cannot arrest you for speaking out against others. So hate talk, bullying, and harassment do not qualify for protection while they are only verbal.

With that being said, the ubiquity of the internet has led to a new phenomenon, cyber-bullying, or the use of technology to harass other people in a deliberate and hostile manner.

In this case many governments actually do not protect cyber bullies. Instead, some have expressly forbidden the use of technology to humiliate, manipulate, or otherwise harm another person. So while the government cannot arrest a person for protesting high taxes on the internet, they can certainly investigate claims of racial or sexual harassment in which the offender has used online technology to perpetrate their crime.

In consumer-created database websites, users post product or business reviews for other people to see, which can often turn into a nightmare for employers and employees. And where legislation doesn’t protect against cyber-bullying, many companies and websites have strict user agreement policies against cyber-bullying! They monitor content for malicious posts, bias, and unfair attacks. In some cases, cyber bullies can take extreme measures to express their dissatisfaction. While they can’t prosecute the cyber bully they can remove their account and all their activity from their site.

For example, on one well-known restaurant review site a customer humiliated a restaurant server by posting his picture, warning other people to stay away. It might seem the server does not have any protection against this bad online review, but this is an example of crossing the line and violating the law as the use of the server’s image was not authorized by the server. Employers can protect themselves and employees from irreparable harm by regularly monitoring the consumer-generated reviews they receive on major review platforms to better learn in what areas they might be letting down customers, and to keep an eye out for cyber-bullying. A penny of prevention saves you a pound of pain down the road.

In a culture where the client is king, customers often think they can say or do whatever they want, but business owners and their employees do have protection under the law and many website usage policies. If you think you’re on the receiving end of cyber-bullying, don’t be afraid to report the abuse to the website. And if the cyber-bullying looks like it might escalate into any kind of physical act of violence or vandalism to your business or employees, know that you are protected under the law.

As laws to vary from country to country and state to state, I encourage each business owner to learn more about what customers can and cannot do via the internet in their particular location.

Cartoon by Kriti Vichare,