8 December 2016


Online trolling and the workplace

 

The use of social media in the workplace is not only tolerated by employers, but is now often actively encouraged. With employees increasingly required to engage with social media platforms during the course of their duties, the risks associated with social media have also become a challenge for employers, including the presence of online trolls.

Online trolling is when someone posts inflammatory, extraneous or off topic messages in an online community with the intention of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. Online trolling can also go as far as targeting individuals with explicit content or in extreme circumstances may even involve death threats to the individual.

Some commentators have suggested that employers offer social media “self-defence training” in light of online trolling. Other employers have implemented strategies to minimise the risks associated with online trolling through their policies and procedures.

What obligations does an employer have to protect their staff from trolling?

Employers have obligations under work health and safety legislation to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, including their mental health. Online trolling poses a significant risk to employees in this respect if they work primarily or exclusively on social media platforms. Online trolling, by its very nature, is aimed at causing offence or provoking emotional responses. If an employee is exposed to these sorts of provocative messages and images without having the necessary support or training to deal with them, an employer may find that it is at risk of being in breach its obligations where an employee’s health or welfare is adversely affected by the trolling.

Steps to counter the effects of trolling 

Employers need to be aware of ways in which they can help minimise the risk of harm to an employee arising from online trolling, particularly for employees who are expected to use social media as part of their everyday duties. Some examples include:

  1. implementing social media self defence training [the Australian Broadcasting Commission is an example of an organisation that has rolled out social media training after a number of employees were trolled online];
  2. amending their social media policies to include the steps an employee should take to manage online trolls and an escalation process for dealing with threatening and abusive messages; and
  3. ensuring that employees understand when and how to respond to online trolls, particularly where representing the employer in their online interactions.

What if your employee is the online troll?

There have been some reports about victims of online trolling notifying the employer of the person engaged in the trolling about these activities. A recent high profile example was a hotel worker being terminated from his employment after Fairfax Media columnist Clementine Ford screenshot the abusive and offensive messages that he had sent to her and forwarded these on to his employer, Meriton. Meriton responded by conducting an investigation into the employee’s behaviour and subsequently terminating his employment.

If you would like assistance with reviewing or preparing social media and electronic communications policies, procedures or training, please contact a member of the PCS Legal Team on (02) 8094 3100.

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