Let’s all be honest: there are your working relationships, your social relationships, your family relationships, and some other smaller groups of people that you interact with.

For the most part, work, play, and family, are really the big three groups in your personal life and private life.

Now, the saying goes that you never mix family with business (there’s even some case law that confirms that theory).

But what about mixing your working relationships, with your social?  Well, that’s a bit more of a difficult one.

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So can you be fired for a private conversation, WhatsApp group or work group chat?

I mean, you have to get on with the people you work with, right?   So, in a lot of ways, it helps that you are able to be friends with your workmates.

We even live in an age of work social events, though covid did put a hold on them for the past 2 years.

There are definitely those times when the work/social balance can become somewhat grey in some areas, particularly when your interactions with workmates continue outside of working hours.

And then, well, where are the lines between work correspondence and private personal communications?

Realistically, particular circumstances can be very blurred, especially when your work colleagues and close friends cross over in your personal lives.

Now, let’s go back a little, all the way back to 2013, and we are going to take a bit of a leap here.

There was a particularly drastic incident involving work colleagues who were interacting with one another in a way that was very personal, sending each other fairly explicit images that no doubt would have been titled “NSFW.”

Well, those NSFW private messages were seen by eyes outside of the trusty group, and issues ensued, jobs were nearly lost.

Nearly.

The then-named Fair Work Australia ruled that sending pornography through the work email system is not an automatic sacking offence.

In that case, three Victorian postal workers used their Australian Post email network to consensually exchange pornographic images. Fair Work Australia determined that this was not, on its own, grounds for dismissal.

Now, while some might breathe a sigh of relief at reading that, the wonderful thing about the law, is that each situation rests upon its own individual facts.

Take the much more recent case that came before the now Fair Work Commission, where the decision of a Sydney employer that sacked a dock worker employee for sending pornographic materials, via online messaging, to a number of his work colleagues, was upheld.

The dock worker claimed, in his appeal to the Commission, that he did not intend to send the material to his workmates and, rather, he “hit send all by mistake”. Further, the messages were sent outside of his work hours and duties.

The distinction between this case and that of the postal workers appears to lie in the fact that the recipients of the messages, in this case, did not consent to seeing the materials, with one requesting that the dock worker “not send me that shit” in a return message.

Ensuring proper consent to send images to a workmate when they have not yet even viewed the material, understandably, can be quite difficult.

When it comes to the big bad world of social media and instantaneous messaging, there are some rules that you can follow to make your life a lot easier, and less fraught with unfair dismissal or disciplinary action.

One, to take careful notice of what you’re sending via email, text message, a workplace WhatsApp group, Messenger, or any type of media broadcasting application that you can access via mobile phone or computer.

But perhaps more importantly, who you are sending the materials to in the work WhatsApp groups. This can be even trickier with an increase in employees out of the office and working remotely.

We are living in a world where it can be easy to take so many things for granted. And, yes, there may be times when you think that your social activities may well be outside the realm of your work activities.

However, when you are participating in social activities with work colleagues, rightly or wrongly, your employer and in some cases, even your employees, may well have a say.

And that is definitely something to have a more careful think about, next time you’re about to communicate and click “send” in your WhatsApp group chat.

About the Author
Emma Mead

Emma Mead is an Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury Law, accredited by the Law Society of NSW. She is also a National Accreditor Mediator and has a Graduate Diploma in Family Dispute Resolution. She specialises in all personal injury and family law disputes, locally and across New South Wales.