Unfriending Someone on Facebook: Is it Cyberbullying?

We all know that cyberbullying on Facebook happens. Typically it’s an unrelenting barrage of messages or posts, designed to belittle and humiliate the recipient. But now a case in Australia is making headlines in which a woman charged her employer for bullying when she defriended her on Facebook.

In what is unfolding as a convoluted and (let’s be honest) kind of ridiculous tale of workplace disputes, one Australian woman has sought legal action against her employer after a disagreement led her to delete her from her friends list.

Rachael Roberts originally took issue with her employer at Tasmanian real estate firm VIEW Lauceston when he boss, Lisa Bird, accused her of going behind her back to her husband with a complaint. This whole thing started because Roberts was upset that her listings weren’t featured in a display.

During a subsequent meeting, Mrs. Bird called her out publicly, telling her she had behaved like “a naughty schoolgirl running to the teacher”. When Roberts became upset and tried to leave, she alleges that Mrs. Bird pointed her back to her seat and stood in front of the door.

Following this incident, Roberts noticed that her boss had unfriended her on Facebook, and took it as a personal slight. In her case, she also brought up incidences that she claimed were bullying by her boss, saying she wasn’t allowed to adjust the thermostat, and had to wear a poorly fitting work uniform.

In Robert’s mind, she was being singled out and humiliated, so she appealed to the Australian Fair Work Commission. Of the 16 counts of bullying Ms. Roberts declared against her employer, the commission recognized half – including the defriending – and took action against the real estate company.

Rachael Roberts claimed to have suffered depression and anxiety as a result of the bullying, and added her medical visits to the mix to further make her case.

Now as the world raises an eyebrow in unison, let’s get it out in the open here – was this really bullying? A little bit of yes, and a little bit of no.

Let’s start from the very beginning. This case is exactly why it’s such an awful, truly terrible idea to ever add your boss on Facebook. It’s not worth the rubbing of elbows and the get-to-know-ya, it makes separating who you are outside of work and who you are as an employee incredibly difficult.

Just don’t do it.

In this case, it seems pretty evident that Rachael’s employers had some issues with her – how far they let that bias interfere with their professionalism is unclear to those of us that weren’t there, but for the most part, the allegations seem to support that fact that the Birds didn’t treat her with a lot of respect.

Fair enough, Rachael’s bosses were jerks, and made her feel isolated and humiliated – that’s textbook bullying, never mind the fact that it’s completely unprofessional.

However, just how aggressive is the act of quietly disappearing off someone’s friends list? Is it really bullying if a person is choosing to distance themselves from you online in order to avoid further conflict?

I’d say no. In the delicate dance that is social media, when someone deletes you as a friend, you can almost bet money that it’s because of what you’re posting, or an altercation in real life. Choosing to put a stop to it doesn’t make you an instigator, it makes you the bigger person.

In this case, no matter how facetious the act may have been by Mrs. Bird, ultimately it was an act of neutrality, and would no doubt save the two from further conflict online. To set the precedent that this action constitutes bullying is a slippery slope, and one that I just can’t get on board with.

Australia’s federal bullying laws are designed to protect anyone of any age from malicious and relentless belittlement, and while that’s a good thing, this ruling is once again over-generalizing what constitutes actual bullying, and diluting the efficacy of the cause.

Ultimately, cases like this become like ‘crying wolf’, and those that suffer from actual bullying may find that their requests for help fall on deaf ears – numb and seasoned by so many claims that turned out to be nothing more than petty disagreements and social ambiguities.

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