Employment and Migration Blog

Unfriending = unlawful?

Posted by Stephen Booth, Lisa Qiu on 1 Oct 2015

Sometimes it’s difficult to ignore a friend request from a work colleague. Once you’ve accepted, should you block or unfriend? A recent decision handed down by the Fair Work Commission may cause you to rethink your next move.  

In only the second official stop bullying order handed down by the Fair Work Commission since the introduction of new anti bullying laws in 2013, the Commission has held that unfriending someone on Facebook was “belittling” and “aggressive” and constituted unreasonable behaviour that warranted a stop bullying order.

Ms Roberts, the applicant, was a real estate agent and had been working with VIEW Launceston, a real estate franchise in Tasmania, for approximately two years (strangely enough, the first official stop bullying order handed down by the Commission also concerned events which took place in a real estate agency). Mrs Bird, the alleged bully, was a Sales Administrator and the wife of Mr Bird, the Principal and Co-Director of VIEW.

Ms Roberts was able to prove unreasonable conduct on the part of Mrs Bird, including Mrs Bird:

  • Belittling Ms Roberts when she told her she wasn’t allowed to sign for parcels
  • deliberating delaying the processing of administrative tasks for Ms Roberts
  • deliberately attempting to damage the relationship between Ms Roberts and a client
  • acknowledging others in the morning and delivering photocopying and printing to them, but not to Ms Roberts. 

Mrs Bird also unfriended Ms Roberts on Facebook immediately after a verbal confrontation between them, in which Mrs Bird told Ms Roberts that her behaviour reminded her of “a school child or girl going to the teacher to tell on the other child” (Ms Roberts had complained to the director about Mrs Bird not publicising Ms Roberts’ sale properties). Deputy President Wells, in reaching his finding that there was bullying as defined under the Fair Work Act, commented that the unfriending by Mrs Bird showed “a lack of emotional maturity and is indicative of unreasonable behaviour.”

So what has this case taught us? That unfriending someone on Facebook could lead to you being branded as a workplace bully?

Well, probably not if that’s the only thing you’ve done to potentially upset the other person (after all, you can only unfriend someone once, and bulling involves repeated behaviour and risk of the behaviour happening again). However, if there has been a history of incidents between you and the other person, and if the person doing the unfriending is in a more senior or somehow elevated position at work (such as being the wife of a director), then unfriending someone could be interpreted as unreasonable conduct, which may land you in hot water should you see yourself on the receiving end of a stop bullying application.

The case also shows us that the Commission recognises the importance of social media and the impact it can have on our professional lives. For example, recently, a female barrister in the UK lashed out against a male senior partner of a law firm, for making a comment about her Linkedin profile picture and some have commented that this was professional suicide on her part. These cases demonstrate that now, more than ever, employers and employees need to think about the impact of social media, whether it’s being used appropriately, and if not, what safeguards are in place to deal with the fall out.

Most of these situations can be dealt with in a social media policy. If you don’t have one, you should get in touch with our Employment Law Team: