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App-alling: are apps increasing risk of bullying claims?

20 March 2014

HR professionals are facing a new challenge in workplace bullying and harassment claims - photo-sharing apps and social media posts being used to harass workers.

For some time, many employers have been aware of the need for a social media policy due to risks such as breaches of confidentiality or damage to the organisation's reputation, based on the social media activity of employees.

However, with the recent changes to the Fair Work Act creating a stronger focus on workplace bullying, coupled with changes in technology and its use, policies may need to be reviewed.

The rise of photo-sharing social media apps and websites, such as Instagram and SnapChat, provide an additional risk in terms of workplace bullying, according to corporate and commercial law firm Holding Redlich.

Holding Redlich senior associate Joel Zyngier has urged employers and HR professionals to ensure their workplace bullying and harassment training and policies clearly outline the restrictions on digital photography, in order to combat this troubling new trend.

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"The prospect of an employee taking photos and publishing them online was never a real risk before photo-sharing social media bloomed, and now the line between use inside and outside of work is often blurred. Not only are they posting and updating at work, now they are taking pictures," Mr Zyngier told HR Daily on 13 March.

This trend raises a number of concerns for HR professionals as bullies could share unflattering images of colleagues or images of staff or clients in compromising positions. If the pictures are uncovered or end up in the wrong hands, this could lead to the business being held liable by the victims.

Popular photo-sharing app SnapChat is a cause for particular concern in cases of workplace harassment, as this software allows a bully to share a photo that will disappear after a specified amount of time, leaving no evidence of their harassment.

"You need to tell your employees, very clearly in a workplace policy, that online conduct in relation to work can be the subject of disciplinary action," Mr Zyngier explained.

A recent decision from the Fair Work Commission has confirmed that an employer's policy can extend to cover employee activity on social media sites outside of work, making it easier for HR professionals to determine what behaviour is not acceptable. However, employers must be clear about what constitutes misuse of social media sites.

"Employees may not see a photo-app as social media and it is important that employers are specific in their policy, defining social media broadly to include things like Instagram, Flickr, SnapChat and any other photo-sharing apps," Mr Zyngier concluded.

iHR Australia offers public, onsite and online workplace bullying and harassment training. iHR also provides HR consulting services including assistance with policies and procedures.

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