Is ‘unfriending’ someone on Facebook bullying?

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission has attracted a lot of media attention, with one US magazine making the rather bold declaration that “unfriending a colleague on Facebook now constitutes workplace bullying in Australia”.

It would have been much more accurate to say that unfriending someone (removing them as a “friend” on a social networking site such as Facebook) can be bullying, depending on the particular circumstances of the case. As always, the full context must be taken into account.

In this particular case a property consultant alleged she was being bullied by the principal and co-director of the real estate business and his wife who was the sales administrator. The property consultant applied for orders to stop the alleged bullying in the Fair Work Commission, and also made a workers’ compensation claim.

The property consultant made 18 allegations of unreasonable behaviour, of which seven were made out against the sales administrator and one against the principal of the business. In addition to the sales administrator defriending the property consultant on Facebook, the unreasonable behaviour included deliberately delaying administrative work for the property consultant’s listings, belittling and humiliating her, speaking abruptly, ignoring her, treating her differently and failing to greet her each morning.

Specifically in relation to the defriending, Deputy President Wells found “this action by [the sales administrator] evinces a lack of emotional maturity and is indicative of unreasonable behaviour”.

Because bullying must be repeated, defriending a colleague on Facebook in isolation will not be bullying. It also has to be recognised that there are many legitimate reasons to defriend someone on Facebook. Surely it is justified when a Facebook “friend” makes endless posts about what they are cooking for dinner/eating for lunch/watching on TV/how much they love their partner (you get the idea…)?

In this case, the defriending followed a heated meeting where the sales administrator called the property consultant a “naughty little school girl running to the teacher”.  It also followed months of unreasonable behaviour by the sales administrator as outlined above.  In this context, the defriending incident was part of a broader pattern of unreasonable behaviour and therefore contributed to the finding of bullying.

This case is a timely reminder for employers of the need to have a social media policy that gives staff clear guidance about the acceptable use of social media, including personal social networking sites, both during and outside of work hours. At the least, bullying and harassment policies should deal with social media and staff should be trained on a regular basis.

How can Ai Group assist?

Have you read our earlier Blog on Social Media bullying?

Does your organisation have a social media policy? And does it cover relationships between staff on social media platforms such as Facebook? Share your thoughts and experiences below and start a conversation.

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Emma has specialised in workplace relations and employment law since 1997, having worked at law firms and employer associations both in Australia and the UK. Since 2011, she now provides training for the areas in which she used to advise, managing Ai Group’s workplace relations training and seminars nationally.

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