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Managing social media:Shades of grey between work and play

The age of wonder is over. I need never wait for an answer – whether to trivia questions or an

important business matter. My iPad or smartphone or Blackberry will proffer an answer with a few quick taps and swipes. And my latest ‘appdiction’ means I can be following, poking and hashtagging anywhere, anyhow.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social media indiscretions have been central to several high-profile unfair dismissal cases. In a November 2010 case, call centre employee Tamicka Drover-Ray was dismissed by Real Insurance for posting a lengthy dissertation on the failings of an internal investigation of her recent sexual harassment claim. She refused to remove the offending post, maintaining that it reflected her opinions. Fair Work Australia sided with Real Insurance, finding her dismissal just.

In a case last November, computer repairman Damian O’Keefe was dismissed by a Townsville Good Guys outlet, for an online rant on his Facebook page about incorrectly processed pay. His colourful language questioned the usefulness of the manager responsible for payroll and made some bold threats about how he would be taking up the matter the next day. Once again, Fair Work Australia found no reason to think O’Keefe’s dismissal was harsh or unjust.

These cases and a handful of others suggest a distinct pattern of decisions, but a more recent case bucks the trend. Truckie Glen Stutsel was dismissed by Linfox for some questionable posts on his Facebook page. The posts pertained to a couple of managers within the company, including a graphic but fanciful description of what an avenging bear might reasonably do to the two individuals concerned, along with some other comments with racial and sexual undertones. Fair Work Australia ordered Stutsel’s reinstatement and payment of compensation for the period he’d been in limbo.

The facts of each case are different, but some interesting threads emerge. The concept of privacy in social media remains uncertain: though Drover-Ray’s MySpace was accessible by anyone, O’Keefe and Stutsel both maintained maximum privacy settings on their Facebook pages – but within very different outcomes. The question of whether social media constitutes a public forum still needs more thrashing out.

For employers, these cases point to the value a well-crafted social media policy – both for company pages and personal accounts.

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