The ongoing dispute between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia is headed to the Federal Court after the parties failed to agree to terms at a Fair Work Commission conciliation hearing last week.
The coming legal proceedings promise to be one of Australia’s most compelling workplace relations cases. And while everyone seems to have an opinion, there can be no debate that the social media revolution has blurred the line between personal opinions and professional responsibilities.
While most employers won’t have to manage a situation of the scale Rugby Australia is now facing, it does raise pertinent questions for employers around Australia: when does an employee’s personal opinions become the business of an employer? And who gets to draw the line?
The Israel Folau vs Rugby Australia situation is a cautionary tale for business owners of all sizes, according to Ed Mallett, Managing Director of Workplace Relations consultancy Employsure.
“No matter how many employees you have or the size of your business, what we’re seeing play out in the public realm is the importance of employers having the correct policies and procedures in place when dealing with their employees and their conduct,” he said. “Social media has been a game changer, so it’s important for business owners to be clear about how they will handle situations that could potentially affect their reputation and their business.
“Furthermore, expectations around acceptable employee conduct and the procedures for dismissal need to be clearly outlined. Not only does it help you manage any issues that might arise, they also protect you and your business in the event of a dispute.
“If you’re having to react to a situation without the proper procedure in place, it’s already too late. You want to have the correct policies in place from the outset.”
Mallett advises business owners to consider how they would respond to employee conduct that could negatively impact their brand, and whether they have policies robust enough to deal with any problems that might arise.
“Social media policies are becoming increasingly important in the modern workplace,” he said. “They clearly outline conduct that is appropriate and inappropriate, and outline exactly what will happen if those expectations are breached.
“But they’re also a chance for employers and employees to work together to develop a company policy that protects everyone’s interests, and makes it clear where everyone stands. There’s no reason for a social media policy to be a top-down mandate. It can be something developed in conjunction with staff so they feel some ownership over its delivery and implementation.”