From Cyberspace to Head Space

- Monday, October 05, 2015
Workplace bullying spills over to cyberspace

So much of our lives are lived online these days, and even workplace bullying has made the leap to cyberspace. As one recent case before the Fair Work Commission (FWC) illustrates, employers need to be vigilant about what happens both in the office and online, as bullying spills beyond the boundaries of the physical workplace and on to social media.  

A case with a social media aspecT

In late September 2015, the FWC issued a stop bullying order in response to an application made by a Tasmanian real estate property consultant. She alleged that she had been bullied by the sales administrator Mrs Bird (who was also one of the owners of the business), almost from the commencement of her employment in May 2014.   

In one key incident, there was an impromptu meeting between Mrs Bird and the applicant, in which Mrs Bird accused her of being disrespectful and undermining her authority. Mrs Bird said the applicant was a “naughty little schoolgirl running to the teacher.”   The applicant tried to leave the room but Mrs Bird stood in the doorway, blocking her path. The applicant was humiliated and distressed and left the office to compose herself. While she was out, she checked her Facebook account and discovered that Mrs Bird had unfriended her. Shortly afterwards, the applicant took two weeks’ sick leave, followed by a workers’ compensation claim. 

The FWC found that found that Mrs Bird’s schoolgirl comment was “provocative and disobliging” and that the Facebook unfriending showed a “lack of emotional maturity and [was] indicative of unreasonable behaviour.”   

The applicant had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety for which she was being medicated and treated by a psychologist. The FWC found that Mrs Bird’s conduct posed a risk to the applicant’s health and safety. The FWC was satisfied that bullying had occurred and there was a risk that it would continue. Even though the employer had recently implemented an anti-bullying policy and manual, Mrs Bird and the employer had failed to appreciate the seriousness of the conduct.   

The FWC issued a stop bullying order, and referred the matter to a conference to be resolved.

Use of social media in workplace bullying

In 2014, the NSW District Court determined that cyberbullying could happen anywhere, not just in the physical work environment. The court was considering a case in which a teacher was suing a former student for defamation after the former student posted a series of defamatory tweets on Twitter.   

This highlights the need for employers to take immediate action if employees are found to be posting negative or defamatory comments on social media, regardless of whether the comments are about other employees, or external people or organisations.

The impacts of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can impact an organisation in a number of ways, including:   

  • Management time spent investigating and managing complaints. 
  • Management time spent in FWC hearings. 
  • Increased employee sick leave and decreased productivity. 
  • Risk of workers’ compensation claims. 
  •  Increased friction between staff.   

Workplace cyberbullying should also be taken seriously because the employee can be exposed to the information online at any time – at work or at home. In other words, they have no escape.   

Psychological health is also a huge factor in workplace bullying and this case shows the psychological damage that bullying did to the applicant, exacerbated by the Facebook unfriending.  

The psychological impacts of bullying can include:   

  • Depression. 
  • Anxiety. 
  • Low self-esteem. 
  • Panic Attacks. 
  • Fatigue. 
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 
  • Suicidal thoughts.
Employer duty of care

Employers have a duty under occupational health and safety laws to provide a safe workplace for all employees. This includes a workplace that is free from bullying. Even though the FWC considered that the bullying of the applicant in this case posed a risk to her health and safety, it was concerning that the employer failed to recognise the seriousness of the conduct.   

Workplace bullying is no joke, as demonstrated by this case. It highlights the psychological impact of bullying and shows how social media can inflame the situation. Employers must be vigilant in monitoring the online activities of employees and educating them about appropriate conduct. This starts with a comprehensive policy and training. Employers should also take complaints seriously and investigate them thoroughly.   

The prevalence of social media use means that bullying issues have become far more complex to investigate and manage. If you have or suspect a bullying issue in your workplace, or would like assistance in writing guidelines or investigating complaints, contact us.

Comments
Anonymous commented on 27-Oct-2015 07:47 PM
"I think sometimes employers forget that they have a duty of care- even if it is online. Perhaps work contracts should prohibit co-workers connecting with each other online on social media sites such as Facebook as it becomes extremely hard to monitor activities between them. Internal work chat rooms and online blogs would probably be more appropriate as everything can be monitored and retraced. However, it is becoming more difficult to not be immersed in the social media craze and exchange online details. Unfortunately, it's only going to become harder to control these situations unless specific regulations are put in place."
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