The ever increasing presence of social media in our lives is undeniable. In 2016 Facebook remains the world’s most popular social networking site with 32 million users in the UK, which is roughly half of the population. In an employment context, the risks of bullying via social media cannot be ignored, and represents a developing threat to businesses which employers must now manage effectively.
In 2013 UNISON, one of the UK’s largest trade unions, said that cyber-bullying is as common as face-to-face workplace bullying. It claimed that 80% of workers experienced cyber-bullying within the previous six months.
The threats to a business arising from failing to take action against incidents of cyber-bullying could be far reaching. At the very least, the victim could suffer low morale and loss of productivity. In severe cases the impact of bullying on the physical and mental health of the victim may lead to absences and sick leave. If the bullied employee takes legal action against the employer, the financial consequences of compensation and legal fees, as well as the consequences to the employer’s reputation, may be costly.
In a recent Australian case, a workplace tribunal held that the act of one employee removing a colleague from her list of friends on Facebook amounted to workplace bullying. This grabbed global headlines and was met with a fairly unsympathetic response, with many complaining that the act of removing someone on Facebook does not amount to of “bullying”. This is perhaps unfair to the victim in this case, as this was in fact only one allegation out of 17 of aggressive, belittling and excluding behaviours over a two year period, which led to her being certified unfit for work. Nine out of the 17 allegations were accepted by the judge.
Social media also provides a forum for bullying behaviour that can amount to discrimination. Employers can be held vicariously liable under the Equality Act 2010 for acts of harassment in relation to the protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation. In a 2012 UK case, two employees used the store manager’s iPhone without his permission and updated his Facebook status to read: “Finally came out of the closet. I am gay and proud.” The Employment Tribunal found the employer liable for their employee’s acts of harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. Compensation for discrimination claims is uncapped.