Can “de-friending” someone on Facebook amount to workplace bullying?
This matter was recently examined by the Fair Work Commission.
In Roberts, the worker alleged that two co-workers bullied her at work. As a result, the worker sought “stop bullying” orders from the Fair Work Commission.
The claims related to work at a real estate agency, and the application was brought against the company in charge of operating the agency as well as two co-workers.
The worker alleged that as a result of the relevant behaviour directed at her, she had been unable to sleep, was depressed and was highly anxious, resulting in the prescription of medication by her GP and treatment by a psychologist.
In all, the worker made 18 allegations of bullying, nine of which were upheld.
These nine incidents included:
- Co-worker One:
- belittling and humiliating the worker;
- deliberately delaying the performance of administration work for the worker’s property listings;
- acting unreasonably in order to damage the reputation of the worker with one of her clients; and
- not acknowledging the worker in the morning when entering the office and treating her differently to other employees.
- Co-worker Two:
- making inappropriate comments to the worker about a possible same-sex relationship in relation to her and a client.
Of note, in one instance, the worker claimed an example of the unreasonable behaviour of the co-worker included “de-friending” her on Facebook. This followed on from an altercation at work, where the co-worker called the worker a “naughty little school girl running to the teacher”, after she had made complaints to the other co-worker, the principal and co-director of the agency.
In relation to this allegation, Deputy President Wells, who was hearing the matter found:
“The evidence of (the worker) as to (the co-worker) defriending her on Facebook immediately after the incident is supported by a contemporaneous text message between (the worker) and (the co-worker). It was not refuted by (the co-worker) in evidence. This action by (the co-worker) evinces a lack of emotional maturity and is indicative of unreasonable behaviour, the likes of which I have already made findings on”.
It was submitted, on behalf of the agency and its two co-workers, that as the agency now had an anti-bullying policy and manual in place, there was no risk of bullying behaviour occurring in the future. The Deputy President disagreed with this submission.
The Deputy President confirmed that she was able to make an order to stop the bullying of the worker, and listed the matter for conference to discuss the nature of the likely orders.
Although the media has highly publicised this decision, and in particular its reference to Facebook, it is clear that the findings of the Fair Work Commission were to the effect that this incident was part of a pattern of behaviour.
In order for the Commission to make “stop bullying” orders, it must be satisfied that the worker has been subjected to “repeated” and “unreasonable” behaviour at the hands of an individual or a group of individuals at work. It must also be demonstrated that the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.
Therefore evidence of a single incident (such as Facebook “defriending”) will not permit the making of “stop bullying” orders.
While the agency gave evidence that a relevant policy and manual were put in place to deal with bullying behaviour, it would appear that this occurred after the relevant alleged conduct took place.
This case demonstrates again the importance of having policies and training in the place dealing with appropriate workplace behaviour.