By David Bates

A recent decision handed down in Tasmania confirms ‘unfriending’ a colleague on Facebook can contribute towards a finding of unlawful ‘workplace bullying’. So you might be asking yourself: what does – and doesn’t count – as workplace bullying these days?

A helpful starting point is the Fair Work Act 2009, which defines bullying as repeated, unreasonable behaviour that’s directed towards an employee and which creates a risk to their health and safety. Think: shouting, unreasonable demands, impossible deadlines, exclusion, and name-calling.
And thanks to the recent Tasmanian decision, you can add ‘Facebook unfriending’ to that list too.

This definition largely mirrors bullying definitions found in various state and territory-based workplace health and safety laws, so it may sound familiar.

So if you’re an employer, what can you do? Well, the Act goes on to say that behaviour which amounts to ‘reasonable managerial action taken in a reasonable way’ does not count as bullying.

This means you can still discipline employees where appropriate, enforce reasonable expectations, and require employees to comply with your reasonable instructions.

You’ll note there are a lot of ‘reasonables’ in the above few sentences, and given the subjective nature of this term it’s always wise to tread carefully and err on the side of caution.

One of the simplest things you can do to protect yourself – and your business – is to make sure all significant interactions with your employees are recorded in writing. Informal chats and feedback given ‘in passing’ might seem like easier options, but comments are easily (and sometimes deliberately) misunderstood. Following things up in writing will provide a valuable paper-trail that will come in handy if a bullying claim is made against you.

And when it comes to your colleagues – especially those employees you manage directly – it would appear best not to friend them on Facebook in the first place. Rolling out a clear and comprehensive ‘Social Media Policy’ will also go a long way towards protecting your reputation and ensuring lines aren’t blurred in the office.

Let’s be very clear, workplace bullying is not acceptable and can be exceptionally debilitating. But expecting employees to do their job to the best of their ability during paid working time is not unreasonable. And if an employee tells you otherwise, don’t hesitate to respectfully (and reasonably!) tell them so.