cyber bullyingEmployers in Australia may be scrambling to update their social media and anti-bullying policies in light of a finding by the Fair Work Commission (FWC), Australia’s national workplace relations tribunal, that Facebook “unfriending” may constitute workplace bullying.

The FWC was tasked with analyzing whether Rachael Roberts — a real estate agent sales administrator — was bullied by a co-worker, Lisa Bird, and that co-worker’s husband (James Bird, also the business owner). Roberts cited many incidents she claimed left her feeling “belittled and humiliated” – including Mrs. Bird calling her a “naughty little schoolgirl running to the teacher” because Roberts had complained to Mr. Bird that her properties were not being adequately displayed in the store window.

After Mrs. Bird’s comment, Roberts left the office crying, and it occurred to her that Mrs. Bird might also post a Facebook comment about the incident. To confirm her suspicion, Roberts logged on to Facebook, only to find that Roberts had “unfriended” her – adding to Roberts’ alleged humiliation.

The FWC accepted Roberts’ bullying claim (premised on this and other incidents, such as Mrs. Bird not saying “Hello” to Roberts in the morning and delivering photocopies to all staff except Roberts) and, as to the “unfriending,” found that it “evinces a lack of emotional maturity and is indicative of unreasonable behavior.”

A complete reading of the FWC’s decision, however, does not lead to the conclusion that “unfriending” a co-worker automatically constitutes bullying. Only that “unfriending” can be considered “belittling behavior” when part of a larger pattern of hostility. In other words, the “unfriending” was the last straw in a pattern of bullying behavior and inappropriate comments.

It bears noting that while a workplace anti-bullying law has been proposed in Florida, the law has not yet passed. That is not to say, however, that workplace bullying based on a protected category — such as race, disability, or religion — is lawful or should be tolerated.

The other take-away here is that while “unfriending a co-worker” alone would likely not constitute bullying, it’s important to implement and update anti-bullying and social media policies — and to train employees (particularly managers) about the potential pitfalls of social media usage. Social media policies should be easily understood, should contain specific examples of social media “do’s and don’ts,” and should be enforced consistently.