While there is no doubt that the internet has enhanced our ability to access information and communicate with those we love, giving everyone the ability to speak to the masses is not a privilege without complications.

The vast majority of Australians have personal social media accounts, and it is not uncommon to see posts from friends and family members who take the opportunity to vent their frustrations publicly.

The last three years have seen a surge in the number of people over the age of 50 using social media sites like Facebook, and aged care staff who have an average age of 45 have a strong online presence.

Caring for elderly people – particularly those who are unable to express gratitude – can be a thankless job, which is why it comes as no surprise that aged care staff are searching for emotional support online. 

Frustration regarding working conditions, clarity regarding best-practice, and gripes with work culture are just some of the issues being shared online.

And despite efforts to remain anonymous, many within the industry are finding out that what is being said on the internet can result in real-life ramifications.

So we have gone out of our way to find some expert advice about best-practice for aged care staff and health workers who like to talk online.

The Age of Outrage

HelloCare has the privilege of producing aged-care-specific content for a large audience, the majority of which are aged care staff.

It is the frustrations and issues being faced by those within the aged care sector that inspired the creation of HelloCare, and our sole purpose has always been to bring these topics to the attention of the public.

For the most part, commentary on HelloCare content remains within the guidelines of the average workplace social media policy, but as Head of Industrial Law at Gordon Legal, Marcus Clayton explains – everything you say online can be used against you.

“Employees who make negative comments about their employers in various online platforms are in legal peril,” said Mr. Clayton.

“The legal position is: an employee who is critical of their employer on social media and can be identified, risks being fired or being subject to other disciplinary action.

Lots of employers have policies and codes of conduct about use of social media and prohibiting employees making negative public comment about their employer.

“Those policies and codes of conduct are generally incorporated into the employee’s contract of employment.”

While it’s clear that all employees need to take full responsibility for what they say publicly about their employer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that employment law has adapted to the way that we communicate in modern society.

Publicly naming and shaming your workplace or singling out co-workers with negative comments is clearly inadvisable, but recent court cases have shown that even personal beliefs that are not in line with an employer can result in termination.

Paul Gilbert, Assistant Secretary of the Victorian branch of the ANMF (VB), shared his thoughts with HelloCare, providing an example of challenges that healthcare workers and aged care staff can face online.

“A common example for nurses is being disciplined by their registration body for making posts that are contrary to their professional obligations, such as anti-vaccination posts,” said Mr. Gilbert.

Another example is that of former public servant Michaela Banerji who found herself at the centre of a landmark free speech case after being fired for personal comments that she made on an anonymous Twitter account.

Ms. Banjeri believed that she was unlawfully fired from her job at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for comments that criticised government and immigration policies, which raises many questions regarding a person’s right to free speech.

Aged Care Venting Anonymous

While you may think that hiding your identity could be seen as a defence for negative comments being made online, anything said while anonymous becomes your responsibility if you are identified.

Private online chat groups can be a great resource for aged care staff looking for support and guidance, but it is virtually impossible for moderators to ensure that everyone entering these groups has the best intentions.

What may seem like a trusted ally or confidant can literally be anyone, according to Mr. Clayton, staff should treat every online exchange regarding their work as if their manager is watching.

“A person is still in violation of a social media policy even if they have attempted to remain anonymous when posting comments,” said Mr Clayton.

“The critical element is the association of the employee and the criticism with the identity of the employer.

“In many circumstances, this will be difficult to avoid as an employee’s place of employment is generally known to those who will be reading an online post.”

Having a disclaimer in your profile that states your views do not reflect the views of your employer is also ineffective and does not absolve you from anything that you choose to say, re-post, or re-tweet.

“There is not really any way for aged care staff to absolve themselves from responsibility for comments made online,” said Mr. Clayton.

“Once posted and identified, any explanation or excuses will be considered by an employer in the course of a disciplinary process.”

“So, unless the posting is anonymous and the author is genuinely impossible to identify, consequences can be expected.”

When you consider the burden of responsibility being placed on aged care workers, the impulse to want to call-out perceived flaws in the workplace is understandable.

Much of their online frustrations stem from feelings of inaction on behalf of their employer, which leads to a misguided urge to make things public in the hopes of seeing some accountability.

Online commentary regarding your workplace and even your industry has become a risky business, and ANMF Victoria’s Assistant Secretary, Paul Gilbert, advises staff to proceed with caution.

Ideally staff could vent on social media, within reasonable boundaries, but in reality, those boundaries are too vague to be safe from repercussions,” said Mr. Gilbert.

“General commentary about the woes of aged care generally should not be a problem, but expressing a negative view about care or staff in your own workplace can be grounds for dismissal.”

Photo credit: istock/laynabowers

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