Does Facebook Unfriending Qualify as "Workplace Bullying"?

Source: Getty Images

Today in headlines you probably never expected to see, ever: "Facebook 'unfriending' can constitute workplace bullying, Australian tribunal finds."

The Telegraph reports that the Fair Work Commission, a workplace relations tribunal in Australia, found one woman guilty of "workplace bullying" after a melodramatic saga of inter-office bad blood culminated in an aggressive Facebook friend deletion.

Oh snap!

Source: Giphy

When co-workers stop being polite (and start getting evil): Per the Telegraph, the social media diss in question was executed by Lisa Bird against her colleague Rachel Roberts, both of whom work at a real estate agency. It began with Roberts complaining to the agency's principal that her property ads weren't getting enough window space outside the office. Bird, who is conveniently the wife of said principal, started talking shit around the office, referring to Roberts as a "naughty little schoolgirl running to the teacher." (Does this all sound weird? This all sounds weird.)

After the initial blowout, Roberts checked her Facebook feed to see if Bird's shit-talking was happening digitally as well. But what she discovered instead was, to her, worse: Bird's profile was GONE, BABY, GONE. A ruthless unfriending had occurred.

To Roberts, this was the final nail in the coffin. So she went to the Fair Work Commission with a long list of Bird's past transgressions, all of which she said led her to develop depression and anxiety.

The verdict? Guilty. (Gasp. I object! Overruled. Order!)

But it wasn't exactly just on account of that one FB faux pas. As lawyer Josh Bornstein told Australia's ABC News, "The Fair Work Commission didn't find that unfriending someone on Facebook constitutes workplace bullying. What [they] did find is that a pattern of unreasonable behavior, hostile behavior, belittling behavior over about a two-year period, which featured a range of different behaviors including berating, excluding and so on, constituted a workplace bullying." (We reached out to the Fair Work Commission for comment and will update if we hear back.)

Source: Giphy

What's the deal with workplace bullying in America? United States employment law doesn't actually have a definition for "workplace bullying," so if you were thinking about pressing charges against your co-worker just because he or she is a total asshole, you may not have quite as much recourse as Roberts did in Australia.

"In America, there's no law that makes workplace bullying illegal across the board," Sachi Barreiro, an employment law expert at legal advice site Nolo.com, told Mic. "To be illegal, workplace harassment must be based on a specific characteristic protected by federal or state law."

Basically, Barreiro said, you're only protected under the law if someone is harassing you because of your race, gender, age or sexual orientation. "But workplace bullying for other reasons — for example, because of personality or work conflicts — is not necessarily illegal," Barreiro said. "Several U.S. courts have declared that existing employment laws are not intended to create a civility code in the workplace."

That said, bullying is a pressing issue in many workplaces. According to a 2013 study by the University of Sheffield and Nottingham University, 80% of people reported being cyberbullied by colleagues in the last six months, with 14% to 20% of those polled reporting being cyberbullied once a week. This type of behavior can also have deleterious effects on the victims' colleagues: Aside from causing the victim "higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction," workplace bullying has also been shown to decrease overall workplace well-being and productivity. 

So if your nightmare co-worker unfriends you on Facebook, you'll just have to take it up with Barbara from human resources. But then again: Why would you want to be Facebook friends with them anyway?

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Nicolas DiDomizio

Nicolas DiDomizio is a Staff Connections Writer at Mic. Prior to Mic, he was at MTV for 3 years. He holds a masters from NYU and a bachelors from Western Connecticut State University. Contact him at nic@mic.com.

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