When taking to social media to express political views employees run the risk of damaging, or ending, their careers. A legal expert helps HRM break down this complicated issue.
It takes years to build a career and just moments to end it. Employees that take to public platforms to express themselves can often find themselves in breach of their contract and out of a job. Sometimes immediate termination is warranted, other times it’s not so black and white.
When political views and professional obligations collide
Angela Williamson, former Tasmanian government relationship manager for Cricket Australia (CA), has filed legal action with the Federal Court claiming her dismissal in June amounted to adverse action. The dismissal followed tweets she sent criticising the Tasmanian Liberal Government’s abortion policies.
The tweets, which CA labelled “offensive”, were in relation to a decision made by the Tasmanian government rejecting a motion to provide abortion services in state public hospitals. In response, Williamson tweeted that the decision was the “most irresponsible, gutless & reckless delivery in parly ever #politas”.
According to reports, Williamson was fuelled by her own experiences of having to travel to the mainland to undergo an abortion herself; she was forced to take time off work and spend thousands of dollars.
In another tweet, she stated that after sharing her own story, “hoping it convinces the gov to act urgently”, she heard “NOTHING” from the Premier, according to her official termination letter.
In an interview with SMH, Williamson says “I was told the tweet had damaged my relationship with government.
“I’m not seeking pity. And I’m not going to be quiet about reproductive health and surgical terminations. Bottom line? I should not have had to lose my job to deliver the change. Abortion is legal in Tasmania. But that system is broken and it made me feel ashamed,” she says.
Apparently it’s not personal, it’s professional
CA disputes the allegations and strongly maintain the reason behind Williamson’s dismissal was because she “neglected key requirements of her role as Government Relations Manager to facilitate a strong relationship with the Tasmanian Government.” So according to CA’s reasoning, if she had spoken out against a ruling that the NSW government had made its likely her job would have been safe. But is that fair?
Aaron Goonrey, partner at Landers and Rogers, says that it may be difficult to separate Williamson’s personal political views (expressed on Twitter) from those of CA, considering that CA have outlined that one of her main employment obligations was to maintain a “positive and productive relationship” with the Tasmanian Government.
“A third party, and indeed the Tasmanian Government, may regard Ms Williamson’s views as being connected with those of her employer. With that said, the Tasmanian Health Minister, Michael Ferguson, has commented that Ms Williamson’s tweets were not an attack on him by Cricket Australia, and that anyone reading the tweet would see that Ms Williamson’s comments were personal. However, Mr Ferguson’s view may not be that of the Tasmanian Government,” says Goonrey.
CA says her termination was “not because of her personal views, free speech, political speech or government interference”.
“Angela’s statement of claim is her version of events, a version we dispute. We refute any suggestion of any government interference in Angela’s dismissal”.
According to another statement from CA, Williamson had been in discussion with Cricket Australia’s CEO James Sutherland and was offered the chance to return in the role of communications manager, community cricket, which she declined.
“I should not have had to lose my job to deliver the change.”
When do you have the right to express yourself?
Williamson’s case is not unique. Former Department of Immigration and Citizenship employee, Michaela Baneriji, is due to have her dismissal case heard by the High Court following tweets that she sent that were “highly critical” about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Her forum of choice was also Twitter.
“The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (Act) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their political opinion,” says Goonrey.
“However, the Act also provides that where it is found that the action was taken because of the inherent requirements of the particular position concerned, then it will not be a breach of the applicable unlawful discrimination provisions, such as political opinion.”
Goonrey says an employer is allowed to deem an employee’s views as being inappropriate if they’re “unauthorised and inconsistent” with the employee’s role or the organisation’s values.
“This is particularly the case where the public can scrutinise an employee’s comments and then form an adverse impression of the organisation that the employee works at.”
Williamson’s lawyer, Kamal Farouque of Maurice Blackburn, has said Williamson’s dismissal was unlawful and that she “spoke out about abortion rights because she believes strongly in the reproductive health rights of Tasmanian women”.
Williamson’s first court hearing is scheduled for the 17th of September, where she will be seeking compensation for loss of income, distress and damage to reputation. CA has said “in the absence of being able to agree a resolution with Angela, we will continue to follow the legal process she has initiated”.
Learn how to develop and implement effective HR policies in your workplace, with the AHRI short course ‘Develop and implement HR policies’.