A casual ABS Census collector was allegedly dismissed after making a politically charged social media post. How can employers protect themselves in a similar situation?
A casual Census employee is suing the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) after allegedly being dismissed over a political social media post roughly a month before her contract was due to end.
The exact nature of the now-deleted post is unclear, but the ABS claims the employee breached the organisation’s requirement for employees to remain apolitical, which was communicated to the employee via email in August this year, a month or so into her contract.
The employee has accused the ABS of breaching her general protections, in particular an employee’s right to express political opinion without repercussions from an employer.
The Australian Public Services (APS) code of conduct acknowledges the right for employees to express their personal and political opinion on social media. However, such expressions must not be at the expense of the APS’s image as trusted and impartial public servants.
The code goes on to state that “an APS employee must at all times behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles and the integrity and good reputation of the employee’s agency and the APS”.
This leaves some room for interpretation, as the definition of something that could damage an organisation’s integrity or reputation could differ from person to person, which is why situations like this are usually treated on a case by case basis.
HRM asked Samantha Edwards, Principal Consultant at Worklogic, what employers in the public and private sector can learn from this case.
Personal and professional image
This case is particularly interesting because the employee posted her political opinion on LinkedIn – a site mostly used to build an individual’s professional profile.
“[LinkedIn] is so connected to your current workplace, so people could almost see it as you posting on behalf of your employer,” says Edwards.
“As an employee of the APS, there is a high risk that anything political posted on LinkedIn could potentially be seen as damaging the reputation of the APS.”
The contents of the employee’s post have not been made public, but, according to Workplace Express (gated content), the ABS considers factors such as, seniority, the relationship between the topic of the post and the employee’s role, and how extreme the expression of their view is when determining if it has caused reputational damage.
“If it was just a post saying, ‘I’m voting for ‘X’ on Saturday,’ a Census collector who probably doesn’t have much seniority could probably get away with that on social media without breaching the APS code of conduct,” says Edwards. “But I think the specifics of what she posted, and the fact that she chose LinkedIn, are critical components of why she was dismissed, as of course was the fact that she was a public servant.”
Since LinkedIn is so closely related to an employee’s professional identity, some employers have explicit expectations or guidance on LinkedIn within their social media policies which might prohibit employees from posting about certain topics, says Edwards.
Deciding if you need a policy dealing with employees’ use of LinkedIn would likely come down to how necessary or prevalent the platform is to your industry and whether any such guidance or restriction would be seen as reasonable.
According to Edwards, an organisational policy dealing with employees’ LinkedIn use might cover the following:
- Restrictions on posting about clients or confidential information.
- Whether it is a requirement that employees have a LinkedIn profile. This is often applied to employees in client-facing roles as a way to build the individual’s profile with clients or customers.
- Whether it is a requirement that an employee’s LinkedIn profile be up-to-date.
- What values the employee promotes through their posts (i.e. political or religious views).
- The tone of the content they post and how it aligns with the organisation’s posts.
- Whether they can post personal content on LinkedIn.
However, just because a LinkedIn profile is more closely linked to an employee’s place of work, that doesn’t mean employees should get free reign to disclose company information or act in ways that could damage its reputation on other social media platforms.
“There have been some notable instances in other industries where employees have behaved poorly in their work uniforms, even showing their name badges, and posted it on TikTok,” says Edwards. “When the poster’s place of work is very easily identifiable, and the employee’s actions damage the reputation of the organisation, then the employer has a right to investigate and take action if needed.”
Managing social media expectations
While most organisations have a social media policy, where some employers go wrong is not ensuring all employees are aware of what such policies state.
To combat this, Edwards suggests your social media policy – and all code of conduct policies – should be kept somewhere accessible, such as on a company-wide digital portal. Simply getting employees to cite and sign such policies during the onboarding process might not be enough.
“I also think offering face-to-face reminders, where relevant, is really important,” she says. “Not in an overbearing sense, but in the sense of continuing the dialogue around what is and isn’t acceptable and setting expectations.”
Another hazard for employers is deciding how much to monitor employee’s social media posting activity. In the case above, the employee’s post was allegedly reported to the ABS by a member of the public.
Should employers be monitoring social media to catch problem posts before a potential client or customer sees it?
“I don’t think that’s feasible for most organisations, even just from a resourcing perspective you don’t have time to check employee posts every day,” says Edwards.
“There may be situations where it would be appropriate for an organisation to take a proactive approach by regularly monitoring an employees’ social media use as a risk management strategy, but they are probably few and far between”.
If you do spot something worrying, Edwards says to be sure to follow due process.
“People do get hacked and sometimes names get mixed up,” she says. “If you get a report that someone is misbehaving online then do your own investigation and don’t jump to any conclusions.”
Read HRM’s article on conducting an effective investigation here.
This case will be heard by the Victorian Registrar on Tuesday 21 December.