Landmark industrial relations case tests employee, employer relations

Society struggles to come to grips with social networking issues, say experts

A group of six prison officers, who criticised the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner and other staff on a Facebook group, are taking the matter to the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), after they were threatened with losing their jobs due to the comments.

In what could be a landmark case involving the rights of employees to vent frustrations about their employers online, the workers made disparaging comments about their boss, Ron Woodham, and Corrective Services Minister, John Robertson, on a Facebook group called Suggestions to help Big RON save a few clams.

Public Service Association (PSA) senior industrial officer, Stewart Little, said the employees in question received a letter from the NSW Department of Corrective Services, outlining that they are guilty of misconduct and that Commissioner Woodham is considering disciplinary action that may include dismissal.

The comments still appear on the group's wall although the group now includes the following disclaimer: "If at any time you feel bullied or harassed by the content of this group, please report your concerns to the group administrator or Facebook direct as it is not the intention to engage in either of those behaviours."

Lecturer from the School of Communication at Deakin University, Ross Monaghan, says anybody with a social networking profile needs to think about both the personal and professional ramifications of what they post online.

“If what you’re putting online would embarrass you if it ends up on the front page of a newspaper tomorrow, don’t do it,” Monaghan said.

“If people are putting defamatory comments online I think people have to expect that the employer will abide by the law.”

Yesterday, the PSA took the prison officers’ case to the IRC. It is expected back on Monday or Tuesday.

"We are concerned [the prison officers] will be dismissed," said Little, adding that Commissioner Woodham submitted a statement saying that he felt bullied by the comments made on Facebook.

The PSA is urging that the decision on the fate of the group of prison officers should rest with an independent organisation, and not the commissioner.

"We're hopeful we will get an order which will prevent their dismissal, which will allow us to put forward a case as to why they should not be dismissed," Little said. "It's fair to say that we're in unchartered territory, because Facebook is an emerging thing and the law in respect to it is emerging."

Monaghan says to expect more such cases as society struggles to come to grips with issues arising from embarrassing social networking comments and viral emails involving employees and employers.

“Undoubtedly, more people will be embarrassed about what they’ve done online or what has been said about them online and employers are becoming increasingly savvy about their online reputations.”

The NSW Department of Corrective Services would not comment on the matter.

Know somebody who is affected? Got more info or photos on this story? Let us know via email or follow @computerworldau on Twitter.

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