Former Cricket Australia government relations and infrastructure manager, Angela Williamson alleged in Fairfax Media this morning she was sacked for tweets she made on a personal account campaigning for greater access to abortion in her home state of Tasmania.
She told Fairfax she was “in shock trying to understand the situation I’d found myself in, and how publicly expressing my political opinion in a tweet had led to this situation”.
Here’s how the situation could play out.
What are Williamson’s options?
The story notes that a claim has already been lodged with the Fair Work Commission, though it doesn’t specify what kind. The two most common claims that are mounted post-sacking are unfair dismissal claims and adverse action claims. Unfair dismissal argues that a dismissal is harsh, unreasonable or unjust. Adverse action is a claim that an employee’s general rights at work have been breached. This could include the right not to be discriminated against or dismissed due to political opinions.
Given the circumstances as reported, Williamson could potentially claim either applied in her case.
What about social media policies?
If an employee makes an unfair dismissal application, the Fair Work Commission will consider, among other things, whether a dismissal is harsh, unjust or unreasonable. The “or” is key here. A dismissal might be, say, reasonable (for example, an employee terminated for breaching a clearly stated workplace policy) but still harsh (the breach is minor, the employee has a good record of service otherwise etc) and thus still an unfair dismissal.
This is where it could get messy for Williamson — Cricket Australia will most likely have a fairly comprehensive social media policy that applies to their employees, which may cover controversial posting in one’s spare time. If so, CA will most likely argue the posts breached a reasonable workplace policy and, in so doing, caused them serious brand damage, and thus Williamson’s dismissal was reasonable. As such, her role as government relations manager may become relevant, the idea that “offending the Tasmanian government” (which CA allegedly told her was the reason for dismissal) is a more serious breach of her employment responsibilities than it would be for another employee.
That said, the simple fact of having a policy doesn’t automatically cover the employer — remember for example the government’s widely pilloried social media policy last year, which most experts said would be very difficult to enforce.
By the same token, even if it’s found that Williamson had her workplace rights breached, that doesn’t necessarily make her case a slam dunk. If the exercise of a workplace right leads to a breach of workplace policy, the courts may still find that breach was serious enough to justify dismissal.
So, which claim should she make?
Given she cited her “political opinion” as the reason she was fired (as did her lawyer), one suspects she’s gone for the adverse action option. This might be a worry for CA; beyond the PR nightmare, the compensation that can be awarded is uncapped for adverse action — employees have been awarded over $1 million.