Facebook “unfriending” incident is workplace bullying: Australian tribunal

facebookIn an unusual case in Tasmania, Australia, a government agency has found that unfriending someone on social network platform Facebook can constitute workplace bullying.

That was what the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a workplace tribunal, had found in a case involving two workers in a real estate agency.

The FWC is “responsible for maintaining a safety net of minimum wages and employment conditions”, it says on its website.

The FWC’s decision involved the case of Rachael Roberts and Lisa Bird.

Ms Roberts, who had been working as a property agent with real estate agency, the View, in Launceston, for 10 years, had complained to the agency that her properties were not being adequately displayed in the store window.

Apparently, the two women had also disagreed over who was to blame for a lost sale, The Australian newspaper reported.

The owner of the agency was Mrs Bird’s husband, James Bird.

Mrs Bird, a sales administrator, called a meeting about Ms Roberts’ complaint. At the meeting, Mrs Bird derided Ms Roberts for being a “naughty little school girl running to the teacher.”

After the meeting, Ms Roberts left the office crying.

Following the quarrel, Mrs Bird stopped saying ‘good morning’ to her colleague and unfriended her on Facebook, which Ms Roberts found out later when she checked to see if Mrs Bird was saying anything about the incident online.

Ms Roberts then filed a complaint with the FWC in February. She had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and received medication and treatment from a psychologist and deemed unfit to return to work until the dispute had been resolved.

In its decision on the complaint, the tribunal found that Mrs Bird’s behaviour “posed a risk to the employee’s health and safety.”

According to news.com.au:

Ms Roberts also claimed she was treated differently to other employees in that Mrs Bird would not acknowledge her in the morning and would deliver other people’s photocopying or printing to them, but not to Ms Roberts.

The Commission agreed with Ms Roberts that the behaviour was unreasonable.

Ms Roberts had also claimed she was not allowed to adjust the temperature setting on the air conditioning unit while other employees were, and that she was required to wear an ill-fitting work uniform even when others were not, however the FWC struck down these allegations.

In all, nine of her 18 alleged incidents of bullying were upheld by the Commission, which issued an order to stop bullying.

Ms Roberts said the incidents, which occurred between November 2013 and January 2015, resulted in her being unable to sleep, feeling depressed and highly anxious, requiring her to take medication from her GP and psychologist.

“This action by Mrs Bird evinces a lack of emotional maturity and is indicative of unreasonable behaviour, the likes of which I have already made findings on,” FWC deputy president Nicole Wells found.

“The ‘schoolgirl’ comment, even accepting of Mrs Bird’s version of events, which I am not, is evidence of an inappropriate dealing with Ms Roberts which was provocative and disobliging.

“I am of the view that Mrs Bird took the first opportunity to draw a line under the relationship with Ms Roberts on 29 January 2015, when she removed her as a friend on Facebook as she did not like Ms Roberts and would prefer not to have to deal with her.”

“I am satisfied the behaviour carried out by Mrs Bird fulfils the prerequisite criteria of [of the Act] and therefore constitutes bullying at work of Ms Roberts,” Ms Wells said.

Legal experts, however, didn’t see the tribunal’s decision as indicating that unfriending someone on Facebook would automatically constitute bullying.

“The Fair Work Commission didn’t find that unfriending someone on Facebook constitutes workplace bullying,” Josh Bornstein, a lawyer at the firm Maurice Blackburn, told ABC News.

“What the Fair Work Commission did find is that a pattern of unreasonable behaviour, hostile behaviour, belittling behaviour over about a two-year period, which featured a range of different behaviours including berating, excluding and so on, constituted a workplace bullying.”