Work and Social Networking

By Legal Eagle

Social networking sites bring up a whole load of complications as they can lead to a blurring of the line between personal and professional. In a post on the topic of social networking I wrote a while back, a commenter, Chris, alerted me to a powerpoint slideshow on social networking here. It’s worth looking at (I can’t work out how to embed it, sorry). It discusses how social network sites like Facebook are arranged so that people have just one large group of friends, whereas in real life people have multiple, often distinct sets of friends. Once the distinct friendship groups are mixed, this can lead to problems.

However, this is even more acute if one mixes work friends and colleagues with one’s general social groupings. And, as the presentation above notes, people sometimes do not realise that conversations online are persistent in a way that a casual verbal conversation is not. Even if one’s profile is private, one can still get into trouble.

In The Australian today, I read of a recent case in which the Fair Work Australia Tribunal upheld the right of an employer to sack an employee for a rant which was made outside work hours on his home computer. The employee  worked at an electrical goods store, and was upset because he felt that he had not been paid commission that was owing to him. He wrote, “f…ing work still haven’t managed to f…ing pay me correctly. C…s are going down tomorrow” in a status update on his private Facebook page. His comments were directed at Ms Taylor, the employer’s Operations Manager who was responsible for payment to employees. Apparently the employee had been in dispute with Ms Taylor for some time over the outstanding payments. The employee blocked Ms Taylor from seeing the comment, but 11 other co-workers were friends on Facebook and could still see the comment. The director of the employer called the employee in and explained that such comments potentially constituted sexual harassment and bullying, particularly because other employees could see what was written. He also believed the comment “c..ts are going down tomorrow” constituted a threat to Ms Taylor. Accordingly, he terminated the employee’s position with the company.

The FWA Tribunal  concluded that this conduct constituted serious misconduct and was in breach of the company’s work policies. The employee tried to argue that the termination was harsh, unjust and unreasonable pursuant to s 387 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). However, the Tribunal considered that there were valid reasons for the employee’s dismissal, the employee was properly informed of those reasons and that the employee was given a chance to respond to the reasons. Finally, the Tribunal also found that there were other methods of resolving the dispute other than by abusing and threatening Ms Taylor.

The Tribunal stressed at [43]:

The fact that the comments were made on the applicant’s home computer, out of work hours, does not make any difference. The comments were read by work colleagues and it was not long before Ms Taylor was advised of what had occurred. The respondent has rightfully submitted, in my view, that the separation between home and work is now less pronounced than it once used to be.

Any person thinking about having a rant about their workplace or boss would be well advised to think again, particularly in light of this decision. Discretion is definitely the better part of valour where social networking and work issues are concerned.

(Full FWA decision available here).

11 Comments

  1. Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Crucial point: It was the personal threat against a co-worker that Fair Work Australia took issue with, not the general rant.

  2. conrad
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    “whereas in real life people have multiple, often distinct sets of friends”

    As is Google+ — it’s vastly better than Facebook for categorizing groups as it lets you set up distinct sets of friends. Hopefully people will move over to that.

  3. Posted August 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be interested to see the result of this.

    Two employees of ATOS (the private company employed by the department of Work and Pensions to conduct Work Capability Assessments on everyone previously receiving Incapacity Benefit) were spotted on facebook calling claimants “parasitic wankers” and “down and outs”. [I’ve previously written about ATOS and the WCA here.]

  4. Posted August 18, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, replied to the wrong thread. Just moving.

  5. Posted August 19, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    [email protected] That well known principle: slander don’t libel.

  6. Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Interesting thing happened here with Facebook & students. A lecturer in a very large (over 1500 students) first year science subject put a copy of model answers for the upcoming exam in the university learning managment system, Blackboard. (Yes, I know, but they still get them wrong, apparently!) A student posted on his facebook page that the lecturer was an idiot, because something in the answers was wrong. For several days the slagging off of this (extremely hard-working and caring) man continued on facebook, until, on the night before the exam, a student emailed him to tell him that he was an idiot for posting the wrong answer in Blackboard. (I swear I am not making this up.) Now alerted, the lecturer hastened to the facebook page and posted exactly why he was right and the student who had stirred up the problem was wrong. No-one argued with him, but no-one apologised either. And around the expected number of people got the answer right. And those students will turn up in his second semester classes, and expect him to treat them all as if he didn’t know what they were saying about him, which is really difficult for him. If they’d had a private whinge they’d have all felt better and he’d never have known. And if one of them had thought to approach him earlier to sort it out,… but it’s easier to be cowardly and whinge in public, apparently. And it’s not even anonymous!

  7. RipleyP
    Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I think the observation that the separation of private and employment is getting blurred is an important thing to note. I am also finding these types of issues are cropping up more and more.

    These issues and the posts are now being reposted in other forums and as such are becoming easier for prospective employees to find with their standard applicant Google search.

    Of course the Google search of prospective employees is another issue on its own.

    I now advise employees to imagine they are professionals and that there isn’t always a separation between the two aspects of their lives. It takes some of the fun out of things.

    Of course I also advise them to not write anything down

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