Thu 09 2019

Fair Work Commission finds dismissal following Facebook tirade to be harsh

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has once again considered the persistent challenges raised by an employee’s use of social media outside work.

The recent decision of the FWC decided that it was harsh for alarm and surveillance monitoring provider Staysafe Security t/as Alarmnet Monitoring (Alarmnet) to terminate long-term employee Creina Murkitt after she was found to have breached the company’s social media policy.1

The decision is a contrast to the recent High Court ruling that anonymous tweets criticizing the government’s immigration policy contravened social media guidelines and public service codes of conduct. In that decision, the termination of the former Department of Immigration and Citizenship employee was justified as reasonable administrative action (our update on the High Court’s decision can be accessed here).2

In this case, Ms Murkitt posted a disparaging rant on Facebook venting her frustration at the new owners of Alarmnet, describing her job as ‘thankless’ and specifically naming her employer, lamenting that, ‘I use (sic) to love my job at Alarmnet Monitoring’. After the Facebook post was drawn to the attention of Alarmnet, it was determined that it breached Alarmnet’s social media policy and amounted to serious misconduct warranting dismissal. At the time Ms Murkitt made the post, she was off work receiving workers compensation payments for psychological injury which she attributed to the conduct of Alarmnet’s new management.

The FWC was asked to determine whether Ms Murkitt’s conduct constituted a valid reason for her dismissal, and if it did, whether the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable. It was not in dispute that Ms Murkitt created the Facebook post, that it was critical of her employer and had become the subject of talk amongst a number of employees and a client of the company. This resulted in establishing a connection between the creation of the post and Ms Murkitt’s employment.

Alarmnet’s social media policy required employees to refrain from posting material that could adversely affect the ‘image, reputation, viability or profitability of the Company’ and evidence was adduced by Alarmnet that Ms Murkitt had received a copy of the policy and was aware of its contents.

The FWC concluded that Ms Murkitt was validly dismissed and a proper process had been followed. However, the FWC considered that the following factors led to Ms Murkitt’s dismissal being harsh, unjust or unreasonable:3

  • she had been employed at Alarmnet for almost 15 years and had not previously been the subject of formal disciplinary action;
  • at the time she made the post, Ms Murkitt was suffering from a psychological condition that made her unfit for work and Alarmnet failed to sufficiently take this factor into account when deciding to dismiss her; and
  • the Facebook post was a single event that did not cause financial harm to Alarmnet.

Overall, the FWC found that the sanction of dismissal was a disproportionate outcome when taking into account Ms Murkitt’s medical condition, length of service and lack of previous performance issues.

Although finding in her favour, Ms Murkitt was ultimately not awarded any compensation because the FWC formed the view that she would not have continued to work for Alarmnet if she had not been dismissed, she was receiving workers compensation payments at the level of 100% of her average earnings, and in light of her misconduct. As such, reinstatement was not considered appropriate.

Implications for employers

Consistent with the principles concerning damaging off-duty conduct notably expressed in Rose v Telstra Corporation Limited4 and O’Keefe v The Good Guys,5 the decision endorses the view that it is acceptable for employers to manage an employee’s social media use beyond workplace walls.

However, the FWC will pay careful attention to the context and circumstances surrounding an employee’s conduct when deciding whether a dismissal for a breach of a social media policy is warranted. The employee’s personal circumstances including their psychological state at the time the conduct took place, the impact on the employer’s business and reputation, as well as the impact on other employees needs to be considered. In some cases, a reprimand may be an appropriate course of action for breach of a social media policy.

In this case, although a social media policy existed and was distributed to employees, Alarmnet did not take steps to roll out training or educate its employees about their obligations. To reduce the legal challenges presented by social media, employers not only need to have a clear social media policy in place, but it needs to be kept up to date and properly integrated through workplace training.

Our employment team would be pleased to assist you to navigate the practical workplace challenges arising from social media.

This article was written with the assistance of Alexandra Armstrong-Millar, Law Graduate.


1Ms Creina Murkitt v Staysafe Security T/A Alarmnet Monitoring [2019] FWC 5622.
2Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23.
3Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), s 387.
4[1998] AIRC 1592.
5Damian O’Keefe v Williams Muir’s Pty Ltd t/as Williams The Good Guys [2011] FWA 5311

Contact

Karl advises his clients in adverse action claims at the Fair Work Commission, implementing and negotiating enterprise agreements, unfair dismissal claims, discrimination claims and contractual disputes.

More about Karl

Jessica practices in employment and workplace relations law and provides strategic advice to clients across a range of industries.

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