Biz Features

Is Facebook Unfriending Bullying?

by . November 4th, 2015

A landmark bullying case in Australia forces us to examine how much social media has changed workplace management.

In a controversial decision, Australia’s Fair Work Commission ruled in favor of an employee who claimed to have been bullied at work, with one of the causes being one of the managers unfriending her on Facebook.

While it seems ridiculous on the surface, there were several circumstances in the case that gave the FWC good reason to decide the way they did. In the wider view, the case also exposes a few uncomfortable truths of working in the post-social media age.

First a short explanation of why the case in Australia went the way it did. The “unfriending” was not in itself equivalent to bullying, even if that’s what the media implied. The unfriending was merely evidence of a pattern of hostility towards the employee, who worked in close proximity to her tormentors for a period of 18 months at a small real estate firm. She was able to prove that the bullying manifested in the form of Facebook unfriending among other things.

So no, Facebook unfriending isn’t necessarily bullying, and very rarely is. There are plenty of valid reasons to unfriend a coworker or subordinate, among these being:

  • You don’t actually work together anymore
  • You don’t share any common interests outside of work and rarely if ever interact within it
  • There may be concerns of confidentiality involved
  • There may be work issues that require some unfriending, especially in the case of personal accounts used for work.

Online actions can lead to very real emotions

Regardless of reasons for unfriending however, it often hurts when you know someone’s done it to you. A University of Colorado survey in 2013 found that 40 per cent of employees would try to avoid anyone who “unfriended” them.

The most common responses to how respondents felt about being unfriended were:

1.) I was surprised

2.) It bothered me

3.) I was amused

4.) I felt sad

It’s fairly safe to assume at least some of the  respondents felt combinations of those feelings as well.

The same survey found these to be the top four reasons why people are unfriended.

1.) Frequent, unimportant posts.

2.) Polarizing posts usually about politics or religion.

3.) Inappropriate posts involving sexist, racist remarks

4.) Boring everyday life posts about children, food, spouses etc.

Huge surprise, we know. But the fact remains these often innocuous posts are capable of escalating far faster online than they were normally able to, pre-internet. There are often very real consequences in the real world because of what happens in online interactions. Just because it’s online, it does not make the emotions felt and the consequences any less real.

In practical terms, “online” is just as real a part of life as whatever happens outside it, from an experiential point of view. HR policies for any enterprise, no matter how many employees or volunteers are in it, need to take into account the implications of social media for employee morale, security, and productivity.

We all should likewise, consider whether unfriending is truly necessary given the other options given on Facebook, including but not limited to unfollowing, changing visibility settings,and hiding feed from specific people. You could also turn off chat for specific people on your friends list as well.

Of course, it may sometime make more sense to outright unfriend or block someone if they’re being outright hurtful. Just ask yourself your own motivations for doing so before going through with it.

 photo credit: unfriend via photopin (license)


What are your thoughts on HR and social media? Comment below!


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.