George Clooney doesn’t tweet and he doesn’t go on Facebook. He says there’s too much information out there and he likes the idea of privacy more and more. During her lifetime Marilyn Monroe made the salient point that while a career may be born in public, talent is born in privacy.
For non-celebrities, as most of the rest of us are, privacy matters little because no one is interested. That is, unless we say things in a spirit of intimacy that are haphazardly scattered into the public domain.
Welcome to the world of virtual communication, digital messaging and social media, a world that is opening up wonderful opportunities but is increasingly the cause of workplace headaches.
A recent case reported widely was that of a senior executive with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry who was suspended for inappropriate comments posted on his Facebook page.
The matter cannot be pre-judged, of course, but it is one of a growing number of cases in which employees are being punished for rash comments made when they claim to be making private utterances.
Privacy settings on social media outlets such as Facebook exist, and a great many users deny access to people they have not accepted as “friends”. It should go without saying that to make an assumption that digital friends will exercise the loyalty that goes with real-life friendship, can be fraught. Even real-life friends have been known to breach confidences.
Many matters around virtual loose lips and the workplace remain unsettled though some cases serve as guides. Earlier this year, for example, the Fair Work Commission found that an HR practitioner had been unfairly dismissed by her manager for derogatory comments made about the manager to his estranged wife.
The HR practitioner was an employee of 18 years standing, a personal friend of the wife and confided on the wife’s private Facebook page that her husband was not only unpopular in the workplace but was also regarded in the broader industry as a “tosser”. The husband discovered the comment when covertly using his wife’s password to access her private page.
The Commission found that the dismissal was unfair to the applicant because the two women believed they were having a private conversation and the comments were not circulated to customers or employees. In addition, the tribunal found that the comments would have likely remained private had the husband not, without invitation, accessed his wife’s page.
Whether the ACCI executive can take solace from the finding in this case remains to be seen.
A number of lessons can be gained from the case, one being if the applicant had been an AHRI member, she would have qualified for coverage of legal fees under AHRI ProCover, an automatic professional member entitlement. The applicant was represented by counsel and would have incurred substantial out-of-pocket expenses.
While finding in her favour and awarding compensation, the Commission refrained from ordering a reinstatement, and so the applicant remained unemployed for an extended period. Even had the Commission not decided in her favour, the applicant would still have been entitled to claim legal expenses as an AHRI member, the only bar on coverage being behaviour that is deemed illegal, and there was never a suggestion along those lines.
Two take-aways from this case suggest themselves: one, avoid gratuitous offensive commentary when posting on social media. And two, if you are an HR practitioner, make sure your AHRI membership remains current.