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October 23, 2015

Tribunal Tale – Can “Unfriending” Amount to Workplace Bullying?

The Fair Work Commission in Australia has found that a woman who ‘unfriended’ a work colleague on Facebook committed workplace bullying.

Rachael Roberts, an employee of a real estate agency, alleged she was being bullied by the owner’s wife, Mrs Bird, who worked in the business as the sales administrator. On complaining to the owner that her properties were not being properly displayed in the window of the business, she was accused by the owner’s wife of being “a naughty little school girl running to the teacher”. Mrs Bird was apparently aggressive to Ms Roberts after her discussion with her husband and was refusing to let her leave by standing in front of the door.

Ms Roberts was upset over the incident and left the office in a distressed state. She later checked to see if Mrs Bird had commented on the incident on Facebook, to find that Mrs Bird had unfriended her. Ms Roberts claimed that she was treated differently by Mrs Bird to other employees, such that Mrs Bird would not greet Ms Roberts in the morning or assist with other administrative tasks, as she did with other employees, and acted in a provocative manner towards her. All of this amounted to a pattern of unreasonable behaviour towards Ms Roberts.

Ms Roberts claimed that she had been bullied and suffered with depression and anxiety as a result of the treatment. The Fair Work Commission said that the decision by Mrs Bird to unfriend Ms Roberts showed “a lack of emotional maturity” and was “indicative of unreasonable behaviour” and agreed with Ms Roberts that the behaviour was unreasonable.

The decision of the Fair Work Commission does not mean that solely ‘unfriending’ a colleague from a social media site would automatically constitute bullying. That one incident formed part of a period of unreasonable and hostile behaviour towards Ms Roberts and was considered a significant event in the circumstances of the case. Unfriending Ms Roberts was not the sole reason her complaint of workplace bullying was upheld.

As social media can be a platform for bullying it is important for employers that their bullying and social media policies deal with the bullying of colleagues on social media sites and detail the sanctions available to the employer if an employee is found to have bullied a colleague in such a way.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Frances Smith.

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