Professional Distance and Social Media

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Maintaining professional distance in the workplace can be challenging at the best of times. There is a very fine line between managing interpersonal relationships, ensuring that colleagues and co-workers get along with each other, and developing such close relationships that potential conflicts of interest or social problems arise. 

This juggle has become even more difficult with the advent of social media, which can blur that fine line, and complicate relationships in a whole new range of ways.

Types of social media platforms   

Social media has evolved from the early networks, like MySpace or MSN to a whole range of different platforms. There are now professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, image-sharing sites such as Instagram or Snapchat (where images self-destruct after a certain time) and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp etc. for social interaction. 

positive use of social media in the workplace

As with any other tool, there are some positive uses for social media in the workplace. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, can be a helpful way to connect with likeminded professionals, or introduce co-workers to other people whose interests may be professionally aligned. 

Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook allow businesses to share news or promote themselves, or permit staff members in different geographical locations to stay in touch. Indeed, many large companies use personalised social media tools such as Yammer to enable staff throughout the organisation to communicate internally. 

when is social media use inappropriate?

Unfortunately, social media can also be misused in the workplace context. In many situations, it is not colleagues being 'friends' on social media that is the main issue, but rather the dissemination of too much information, inappropriate content or the sharing of information with an inappropriate audience. 

It is easy to over-share on social media, forget who the information is potentially accessible to, and the fact that it is often permanent once it is shared. 

Types of inappropriate social media use may include:

  • Posting negative or offensive comments about co-workers, employers, or the workplace (especially if the person posting the comments does not consider who their contacts and potential readers include)
  • Sharing excessively personal information, either about themselves, or other people, which removes professionalism or an ability to maintain a professional distance from co-workers. 
  • Posting comments which could potentially negatively affect the reputation of the employer or co-workers
  • Sharing confidential information concerning clients, co-workers and pending or current contracts/agreements
  • Creating circumstances whereby colleagues may start to dislike each other. For example, it is likely to be completely irrelevant to a working relationship whether a colleague supports the current Prime Minister, or has a particular religious affiliation, but sharing polarising views on social media could cause work relationships to fracture. 

Walking the line

The most significant misuse of social media in the workplace arises from the potential for the professional lines to be blurred - including where inappropriately close, possibly sexual or romantic relationships form. This is especially important in situations where there is a power imbalance - for example, between a manager and a staff member, a teacher and a student, or a treating doctor or psychologist and their patient. 

In these circumstances, it is likely best to avoid a social media 'friendship' completely, in order to ensure that the appropriate professional distance is maintained.

why workplaces need social media guidelines

Employers should have clear policies in place which set out the rules and obligations for employees interacting with colleagues or mentioning the workplace on social media, and the consequences for a breach of the policy. 

A coherent and well-communicated policy can prevent or limit the fallout from many of the issues associated with a failure to maintain professional distance. 

If you are seeking advice on implementing a social media policy, or you require a workplace investigation into a potential conflict of interest or inappropriate relationship or misuse of social media, we can help. WISE Workplace offers both full and supported investigations. You can also find out more about the issues involved in maintaining professional distance here.  

Mitigating Factors and Dismissal - What is Relevant?

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Mitigating Factors and Dismissal - What is Relevant?

If you’ve ever conducted a disciplinary interview with an employee, you may have asked them if there are things they’d like you to take into account when making your decision about how to handle the matter.  

These are often referred to as ‘mitigating factors’, and are an important part of the disciplinary process. But we find employers can be uncertain about the concept, and what is relevant. 

And rightly so – mitigating factors are fluid, changing and evolving depending on the circumstances of a matter.

the Legislative basis for mitigating factors

The Fair Work Act sets out the criteria for the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to consider whether a dismissal is harsh, unjust or unreasonable, including whether there was:

  • A valid reason.
  • Procedural fairness.
  • Opportunity for the employee to be represented. 

It also requires that the FWC consider “any other matters that [it] thinks relevant.” 

This is the provision under which the FWC will consider mitigating factors – any background circumstances that might explain the conduct or reduce the severity of the penalty for the employee.

It is a deliberately vague provision, as mitigating factors could include just about anything, depending on the circumstances of the individual. 

Employers must consider these factors

Because the FWC must consider mitigating factors when determining an application for unfair dismissal, it follows that employers must also consider mitigating factors when making disciplinary decisions, including whether to terminate employment. 

This also serves as a reminder to employers that when deciding whether to terminate employment, all of the employee’s circumstances need to be taken into account to arrive at a “reasonable” decision. It is especially important to ask the employee whether there are any matters that they would like to be taken into account.

The importance of this was highlighted in the recent decision of the FWC in Mary-Jane Anders v The Hutchins School.
A real world example
Anders was a maths teacher and an academic administrator, employed by the school. She reported struggling with her workload and not long afterwards suffered a breakdown and took leave. After returning to work, she again broke down and took further leave. 

In the meantime, the school had removed her from her administrative role. She took issue with the allocation of classes that she was to teach. 

Her relationship with the school’s leadership broke down, and some of her colleagues refused to work with her. She used social media and emails to colleagues to vent her concerns.

The school’s deputy head terminated her employment following an investigation, citing a total breakdown in the employment relationship. Anders claimed unfair dismissal in the FWC.

The FWC made findings about bias, but also found that there were some significant mitigating factors which the school ought to have taken into account when investigating the matter. These included:

  • Anders’ previous good employment record. 
  • Her mental illness diagnosis.
  • Her husband’s critical illness at the time when allegations were first raised with her.
  • The school’s failure to address earlier problems in the relationships between Anders and some of her colleagues.

In light of these factors, the FWC found that, even though Anders’ emails and social media comments were poorly judged, the termination of her employment was harsh and there was no valid reason for dismissal. 

But even so, because her relationship with the school was so broken down, the FWC awarded compensation instead of reinstatement. 

The need to take mitigating into account

This decision is a reminder to employers of the importance of taking into account any mitigating factors. If an employee’s conduct is out of line or serious enough for termination to be considered, employers should do everything possible to get to the bottom of the matter. 

In our experience, the more thoroughly employers try to understand an employee’s conduct, the more likely the employer’s investigation will be seen as fair and reasonable. For further information about mitigating factors and how to address them, WISE Workplace can help. We’re just a phone call away. 

The Year that Was: Lessons from 2015 Part 1

Jill McMahon - Monday, January 18, 2016
Lessons to be learned from 2015

It’s a good time to take stock and reflect on the year that was. The cases that hit the headlines in 2015 had some important messages for employers with some common themes.   

In this article, the first in a two-part series, we will look at how the Fair Work Act’s definition of 'at work' has been developed and also how bullying issues have evolved.   

In our next article, we will look at case law covering the themes of workplace culture, procedural fairness and what can happen when an authority oversteps the mark.   

When is employee conduct considered to be 'at work'?

One of the hallmarks of the Fair Work Act is that the employee conduct must have occurred 'at work'. In Bowker, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) considered whether posting comments on social media could be considered 'at work'. It found that it was not a question of when the comments were posted but rather when they were accessed by the targeted workers. If access occurred while they were at work, it was a sufficient connection.    

In another matter that considered an application for a Stop Bullying Order (SBO), the FWC seemed to extend the Bowker decision, saying that cyberbullying could happen anywhere. If the parties were connected on Facebook because of their work relationship, that was 'at work'.   

In Keenan, drunken and offensive behaviour during and after the office Christmas party led to termination of employment. The FWC found that the party was a sanctioned company event and therefore the conduct occurred 'at work'.   

Although Deeth was charged with a serious criminal offence unconnected with his work, his employer terminated his employment. The FWC found that the alleged criminal conduct alone was not a valid reason to dismiss because it was not 'at work'. There needed to be a proper investigation establishing a connection with the employee’s work.   

These cases are varied in their factual circumstances, but they serve as useful reminders to employers that:   

  • 'At work' includes social media activity. It appears that the law will develop to the extent that an online connection between two work colleagues will be sufficient to satisfy the requirement.  
  • Employer-sanctioned Christmas parties and after-hours events are considered to be 'at work' and employers should take reasonable precautions to ensure they are without incident. 
  • Even criminal charges won’t give rise to an automatic right to terminate employment. Procedural fairness is paramount – there must be a proper investigation, as we will explore in Part 2 of this series.    
Developments in workplace bullying

For good reason, workplace bullying remains a hot issue. A happy workplace is a productive workplace but even so, it seems there are ever increasing ways for bullying to occur.   

In 2015 the FWC issued its first formal ruling for an SBO since the new legislative provisions came into effect. Two employees complained of bullying conduct by a manager. There was an informal investigation, an unsuccessful mediation and ultimately the manager resigned but was later seconded back to the workplace.  

The FWC found a real risk to the workplace health and safety of the workers and that the employer had not taken the issue seriously.  The FWC issued orders, to remain in force for two years. As we have already seen, the cases of Bowker and a subsequent SBO application dealt with the very serious and growing issue of cyberbullying. In its decisions, the FWC has made it clear that employers have a duty of care to ensure the workplace health and safety of all employees and this includes in online and social media environments.   

Employers must:   

  • Take seriously any complaints concerning the conduct. 
  • Take immediate action to stop the conduct. 
  • Have proper policies and procedures and educate all staff about appropriate conduct. 

What constitutes an employee being 'at work' and the ever expanding realm of workplace bullying continues to dominate the case law landscape. It is clear that employers must remain vigilant in monitoring employee behaviour and educating all staff about appropriate conduct, particularly online. These issues are, in short, a product of our modern world, and there are important lessons to be learned from these cases. 

From Cyberspace to Head Space

Harriet Witchell - 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.

Use of social media records as evidence of misconduct

Harriet Witchell - Tuesday, November 05, 2013

There is no doubt that social media is playing an increasing role in our lives.  

Have you ever been handed a folder of print outs from Facebook and told; “Here you go, I want this person out!”?

An increasing number of organisations are developing social media policies as a starting point to control inappropriate staff interaction online, but the question still arises: ‘how do you prove that someone has breached the policy?’

Where do you start?

Initial questions that need to be asked include;  What was said?  Is it work-related?  Who wrote it? At first glance, the latter question may seem obvious, but in more than one case, someone impersonating someone else has posted comments. To take effective administrative action, you must “prove” who made these comments. This is known as “attribution of the records”.

In a recent case conducted by Access Forensics, alternate records from the social media site identified the true author of the comments and a just outcome was achieved.

In another case, a client became concerned with internet records which appeared to suggest excessive use of the company’s IT system to visit social media sites.  However, closer inspection confirmed that most records were generated as a result of automatic processes not initiated by the user, nor as a result of visiting the social media site.

To effectively attribute a digital record to a particular author, it’s imperative that the investigator uses good, old fashioned interviewing skills, to question the alleged author about the creation of the social media post. They should also collect other sources of evidence and circumstances surrounding the case, to avoid attributing the post to the wrong person.

So what do you need from your Facebook printouts?
  • The name of the person who saw the comments on Facebook
  • The name of the account where they were seen
  • The time and date of printing off the posts
  • The name of who did the printing
  • A description of how they did the printing

All this information can be easily obtained in a statement that should accompany the Facebook pages and give credibility to the source of the evidence. These steps won’t prove who said what, but they will give weight to the evidence that you have.

Written by Harriet Stacey of WISE Workplace in collaboration with Clinton Towers, of Access Forensics

WISE now on Facebook

Harriet Stacey - Wednesday, May 25, 2011
You can now find us on Facebook!