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Bullying is more than unfriending - Legal Case​​​


Media attention has focussed on a recent case which involved a real estate agent being “unfriended” on Facebook by her employer, but this is not the full story.

image showing menu item of 'unfriending' in facebook
In fact, the Fair Work Commission made a stop bullying order against Rachael Roberts’ employer after a number of incidents of which the unfriending was only one. 

In this context, bullying is ongoing unreasonable behaviour that places the health and safety of a worker or workers at risk. A stop bullying order will be made by the Commission if it decides that a worker or group of workers has been bullied, and the bullying is likely to continue if the order isn’t made. 

What actually happened?

Ms Roberts had complained to the agency principal, James Bird, that she was not getting her fair share of the properties displayed in the agency’s window. This is a serious issue if your income depends on earning commissions from sales. His wife Lisa Bird, who also worked at the agency, then accused Ms Roberts of being a “naughty little schoolgirl running to the teacher” and deleted her as a Facebook friend later that afternoon.

The Commission found that these actions were “provocative and disobliging” and showed “emotional immaturity” and a tendency to “unreasonable behaviour”. Workers should be able to raise their genuine concerns with their employers without fear of being ridiculed and abused as a result. 

Such victimisation prevents people speaking up when they have problems and ensures that the problems won’t be resolved. It contributes to a toxic workplace culture and is illegal under laws such as the Anti-Discrimination Act, 1977 (NSW) and work health and safety legislation.   

Ms Bird also stopped acknowledging Ms Roberts in the morning and delivered photocopying and printing to other employees but not Ms Roberts. When she was asked to carry out an urgent rental appraisal by Ms Roberts, Ms Bird posted it to the customer rather than emailing it, and Ms Roberts lost the deal. 

A number of other incidents were submitted which showed Ms Roberts was treated differently to other employees and was subjected to ridicule and humiliation. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety requiring treatment.

The Commission accepted a number of these incidents, although not all of them.  It found that mailing the appraisal to the customer when Ms Bird knew it was urgent was unreasonable behaviour. It also found that the continuing pattern of treatment became a risk to Ms Robert’s health and safety. ​

What happens now?

Employers are expected to take reasonable steps to ensure that the health and wellbeing of their employees is not placed at risk by bullying and harassment. 

In this case, the employer argued that the behaviour was unlikely to continue because it had since written an anti-bullying policy and manual. However, having heard that Mr Bird, Ms Bird and the company did not consider any of Ms Bird’s behaviour to be bullying, the Commission was not convinced that just having a new policy would be enough to ensure that the behaviour stopped. It will now hold a conference with Ms Roberts and Ms Bird to decide what sort of order should be made.  

Having appropriate policies and procedures in place is the first step an employer should take to ensure that employees are not subjected to bullying or harassment. But the policies and procedures must be implemented, which involves educating all staff and management, and monitoring the situation to ensure that everyone behaves accordingly.

Rachael Roberts v View Launceston Pty Ltd as trustee for the View Unit Trust T/A View Launceston; Ms Lisa Bird; Mr James Bird. [2015} FWC 6556. (23 September, 2015) 

Back to December 2015 e-Newsletter


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