Unfriending someone on Facebook has been adjudged as ‘workplace bullying’ according to the Fair Work Commission. In a move that will dismay many employers on the extent to which the legal profession is now called upon to intervene in what appear to be petty disputes, the decision nevertheless has implications for HR, underlining the importance of having social media policies in place.
Real estate agent Rachael Roberts filed an application with Australia’s Fair Work Commission citing 18 different incidents of bullying by the agency’s owners, husband and wife James and Lisa Bird. They included being called a “naughty little school girl running to the teacher” by Mrs Bird and being forbidden to adjust the air conditioning which led to her seeking treatment for sleeplessness, anxiety and depression.
The ‘unfriending’ was the last straw in a relationship that was clearly deteriorating, says Andrew Farr, workplace relations and safety practice partner from Lander & Rogers. “The Facebook element [of the ruling] grabbed the headlines, but the fact is that this was a pattern of behaviour over fifteen months. The employee was bullied by the married owners and has been on sick leave since February.”
What it highlights, says Farr, is the inefficiencies of the system with a complaint taking seven months to be resolved. “Bullying jurisdiction is meant to resolve a complaint as quickly as possible. It was a very small workplace. If it takes that long for a resolution, you have to ask whether the bullying jurisdiction is delivering on its stated objectives.”
Farr emphasises the importance of having workplace policies in place around bullying, adding that having a policy after the fact doesn’t absolve the employer from their obligations under the bullying jurisdiction. “Employers don’t just need to have policy, they also need to train employees and create a culture that prevents bullying from happening,” he says.
Returning to the role of social media in this particular case, it’s also worth considering the growing research about the psychological impact of interaction one of the world’s largest social media platforms.
In a survey conducted by University of Colorado Denver Business School in 2013, 40 per cent of respondents said they would avoid a person who unfriended them on Facebook if they saw them in real life. Women were more likely to react this way – not a great outcome if you work together. “Unfriending may be viewed as a form of social exclusion,” said Christopher Sibona, author of the research.
Another negative impact comes from German researchers, who found that a third of people sign out of Facebook feeling frustrated and envious of their friends.
From what can be gleaned in the Tasmania case, colleagues at work were connected via Facebook at work. Access to the social media platform is blocked in many workplaces, as it is seen as a distraction and can lead to bullying. Not all employers agree however, saying that it helps to facilitate communication within an organisation, particularly among younger generations.
Whatever the position taken, HR needs to ensure it has social media policies in place that identify acceptable and unacceptable behaviour when using social media. NSW Industrial Relations states that policies should set out the risks and consequences of abuse and advises that employees should be trained, educated and monitored in their use of social media while at work.