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Managing inappropriate online conduct by members of the public

This part sets out strategies that agencies may find helpful in responding to and managing inappropriate behaviour directed at employees online by clients and other members of the public. It covers the following topics:

  1. Monitoring and keeping records of online comments
  2. Evaluating online comments
  3. Responding to online comments
  4. Following up and following through

Refer to the flowchart for managing inappropriate online conduct by clients and other members of the public.[i]

5.1 Monitoring and keeping records of online comments

a. Monitoring online comments

APS agencies may have systems in place for monitoring emails and tracking postings, comments, websites, blogs, etc. for content about their agency or employees, including by designating staff to monitor online content. These staff may also be responsible for identifying, evaluating, and responding to inappropriate online conduct.

Online tools and alerts—such as Google Alerts, Social Mention, Technocrati, TweetBeep, Boardtracker, Dialogix, The Search Monitor, etc.—can be used to track comments about agencies online. For example, Google Alerts can send regular email updates of the latest online mentions of an agency name or other specific search criteria, whether it is on a blog, in an online newspaper, in a video, or in a tweet, thus eliminating the need for manual searches.

Agencies will need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to alert employees to online comments directed at them which have come to the agency's attention. Employees generally prefer to know if they are the subject of online harassment, but there may be circumstances where a risk assessment indicates that it would be preferable not to alert the employee. When notifying employees, it is good practice to inform the employee of how the agency intends to deal with the matter. In doing so, agencies will need to assess the risks to health and safety and be mindful of the effect that the online comments may have on the well-being of the employee, and be ready to provide support.

b. Record keeping

It is important to record instances of cyber-bullying and any actions an agency has taken in response. Records assist with the following:

  • documenting how the agency has responded to the incident and the reasons for the agency's approach
  • explaining the agency's actions should these be subject to review or challenge
  • identifying systemic issues which may be affecting employees or clients
  • supporting future investigations; for example, a police investigation.

Record-keeping may include printing relevant emails, blog posts, web messages, and other information directly from the website itself, or taking screenshots of the offensive material. This will ensure there is a record in the event that comments are taken down or changed. Any online correspondence with the client or member of the public should also be recorded.

5.2 Evaluating online comments

If inappropriate online content that targets an employee is identified, agencies need to determine whether:

  • to take steps to have it removed or have the author or creator blocked (if the content is on the agency's website)
  • a response is needed, or any other action should be taken.

This should be done promptly to minimise the impact on affected employees.

Agencies may wish to consider the following factors when considering how to respond:

a. Content

  • Does the online material constitute legitimate criticism or is it purely malicious?
  • Does the content include personal information about an APS employee (or their family) that has been obtained and/or used inappropriately—e.g. personal photos, videos or address information?
  • Does the content include obscene language or material?
  • Does it contain threats to, or unsubstantiated allegations about, an APS employee?
  • Is the content potentially contrary to law, e.g. under racial vilification legislation or the Criminal Code Act 1995,in relation to 'using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence'?
  • Could the content be in violation of the 'terms and conditions' of the relevant social media platform?

b. Impact

  • Could the online content have a detrimental effect on the physical or psychological health and safety of the employee; for example, causing stress and therefore creating a duty of care or legal liability if action is not taken?
  • Could the content significantly damage an agency's reputation or the reputation of an APS employee?
  • What impact, if any, is the online content likely to have in the workplace, or on relationships between colleagues or with clients?
  • Has the online content had an adverse effect on the APS employee or their family?
  • Is the client hijacking the communication stream in a way that has an impact on its effectiveness or the ability of other people to use it in the intended way? (For example, if an agency is running a blog, Facebook, or Twitter page where employees engage in two-way communication with clients.)

c. Visibility and credibility

  • Is the online content on a website that is highly visible and easily accessible? For example, is it on Facebook (with around 10 million Australian users), or is it on an obscure website that has been viewed by a relatively small number of people?
  • Has the online content 'gone viral'—taking on a life of its own, possibly even being reported in the news media? It can be difficult to know when an online posting or website will spread and be picked up by other bloggers and the media. The online listening tools referred to under Part 5.1(a) can be helpful because they alert the agency when the agency's name, or other search criteria, is mentioned, and can help agencies to comment or deal directly with the source of the posting before matters get out of hand.
  • Could the online content be perceived as credible, or is it so far-fetched that it will not be believed by a reasonable person?

d. Apparent purpose/objective

  • Does the content appear to have been created with the intention to embarrass or humiliate? Is it part of a smear campaign or a publicity stunt?
  • Does the content incite others to engage in unlawful or inappropriate behaviour—for example, targeting an APS employee?

e. Context

  • What are the circumstances surrounding the online posting? For example, does it stem from an interaction or conflict a client has had with an agency (or an employee), a decision that an agency has made, or the more general concerns of a member of the public about the agency and/or government policy?
  • Does the client appear to have a legitimate grievance? If so, steps should be taken to rectify the matter, even if the client's actions seem to be disproportionate to the circumstances. In these cases, agencies need to consider how best to address the client's concern without appearing to condone the manner in which the concern was raised.
  • What is the timing of the online content? For example, has it been created at a time when the agency (or an APS employee within the agency) is under unusual public or media scrutiny? If so, a response may be needed to correct factual information.
  • Has the online content been inappropriately obtained—for example, is it based on information that has been obtained or disclosed unlawfully?

5.3 Responding to online comments

Once the content has been assessed, agencies will need to make a decision about whether they should respond, and, if so, whether the response should be public or private.

a. If a response is needed

Reasons for responding to inappropriate online content include that:

  • the agency needs to correct the public record because there is a significant risk that the online content could mislead others (e.g. if the material contains gross misrepresentations about an APS employee, or is significantly misinformed)
  • it is inflammatory, offensive, or unlawful
  • it could cause significant reputational or psychological harm to an employee
  • it discloses personal information about an employee or their family
  • it could give rise to legal or WH&S liability if it is not acted on
  • it is highly visible and accessible, or has 'gone viral' or is likely to do so
  • it is having a significant impact on the workplace, or relationships between colleagues or with clients
  • it undermines the agency's operations.

Any dealings an agency has with clients and other members of the public must be consistent with the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct. This includes any response made publicly or privately to an instance of cyber-bullying. Agencies may wish to consider the Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013 on the application of the APS Values when considering how to frame a response in an instance of cyber-bullying.

Agencies must also be mindful of their obligations under the Privacy Act 1988, including those relating to the way they use and disclose personal information, in responding to cyber-bullying. Depending on the circumstances, it may be more appropriate to publish a general response online, rather than a response that addresses the facts of a particular case.

If it is determined that a response is required, the response should be as prompt as possible, in order to defuse the situation and before the material has a chance to be picked up and spread widely.

Responses can be made on the website or forum where the online content was discovered, on the agency website, blog, or social media page, or in an online newsletter or other official agency communication channel. They can be made by email, telephone call, face-to-face interview, or in a letter.

Depending on the circumstances, agencies may also need to decide whether to notify police and/or seek legal advice. If an agency suspects that the client's conduct constitutes a crime, it  will generally be appropriate for the agency to report the conduct to the Australian Federal Police or to the relevant state police authorities. Refer to Part 6.5 of the guidance for information on the legal remedies available to agencies and APS employees.

b. Public or private response?

Public response

A public response may be appropriate if the online content is on a website that is highly visible and accessible, or includes false or misleading information. Public responses should:

  • be factual
  • be consistent with the APS Values and Employment Principles, the Code of Conduct, and other laws
  • offer to correct things if an agency or APS employees have done something wrong.

The public audience is more likely to judge the way an agency responds than the original comment. A poor agency response can do more damage to the agency's reputation than the posts themselves.

If the online content poses a significant risk of reputational harm to an employee, an agency may wish to consider providing the affected employee with a public message of support as part of the agency's response. Agencies may wish to correct factual errors or address the language and sentiments expressed by the person posting the comment. In publishing a message of this kind, agencies are  advised to get the targeted employee's consent and to seek advice from their Privacy Contact Officer, or the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Agencies should also take into account whether their response may further inflame the situation.

Once an agency has responded publicly, it may decide to shift to private responses or correspondence with the client—for example via email, telephone, or face-to-face communication. Social media and the internet can be poor platforms for problem-solving and there may be confidentiality and privacy issues that will need to be considered. For example, a public response might not be appropriate if the client is speaking on behalf of a third person and there is a risk of personal information about that person being discussed.

Private response

A private email or telephone call may be appropriate if the online content is not on a website with high traffic. A private response can be used:

  • to clarify matters, including where personal information about the client or another person is involved
  • when the client has misunderstood something and the agency needs to provide clarification without embarrassing the client
  • to give the client an opportunity to remove the online content before the agency takes more decisive action, such as contacting an internet service provider to seek removal of the content or contacting the police in cases where the conduct may constitute a crime.

Agencies should consider the possibility that a private response will be made public by the recipient and whether further action (e.g. a media release or alerting the Minister's Office to a high-profile case) is necessary in light of that possibility.

Both public and private responses

A more comprehensive strategy may be required if the online content has spread across the internet or through social media; targets specific APS employees; is unlawful; or appears to be credible. This strategy could include elements of both a public and private response, for example:

  • media releases or interviews
  • proactive outreach to relevant clients
  • corrective messaging in social media and/or on agency websites or blogs
  • a response in other relevant publications produced by the agency.

Generally speaking, unless the response is also posted in the forum in which it originated, it may not have the effect of correcting the record for the audience engaged in the discussion.

c. No response needed

There may be circumstances in which an agency decides a response is not needed. Such circumstances may include where:

  • the comments constitute legitimate criticism or debate
  • the agency is concerned about threats to the employee and has referred the matter to the police
  • the only purpose that would be served would be to create controversy and/or invite media interest
  • any reasonable person looking at the comment would likely consider it to be far-fetched and not credible
  • it does not violate any laws and would not raise any duty of care, WH&S, or legal issues for agencies if it is not acted on
  • it is not located on a website that is highly accessible or visible to others
  • it is unlikely to cause reputational or psychological harm, or affect the workplace environment or a particular employee in any significant way.

If an agency decides that a response is not needed, it would nevertheless be prudent to copy the content and make a record of the incident, and the reasons for the agency taking no further action, and monitor the site in case circumstances change.

d. Employees responding in a personal capacity

Employees who experience cyber-bullying may wish to respond personally to comments made about them. Agencies are advised to canvas this eventuality in any protocols or guidance they develop. APS employees are bound by the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct in responding personally to online comments about them—including the requirements in the APS Values to be professional and respectful. Agencies should support their staff in making good decisions about whether (and, if so, how) to respond personally to online harassment.

There is no single answer to the question of whether employees should respond personally to cyber-bullying. Agencies may wish to advise their employees not to do so at all, or, alternatively, may issue advice to employees about how to respond appropriately, including what steps to take to remove inappropriate or offensive content posted online about individuals. It is important for employees to know, and to understand, the ramifications of a decision to respond personally.

5.4 Follow up and follow through

After an incident of cyber-bullying has been dealt with, agencies may wish to continue monitoring the website where the content was located, to see if there are any new comments relating to the original posting, or any further posts of a similar kind. Agencies may also wish to check if the content has been picked up elsewhere.

In cases where it appears the client has made a legitimate complaint, agencies should consider following up with the client to make sure that the agency has satisfactorily addressed their concerns. By keeping in touch with the client, agencies demonstrate accountability and responsiveness, and increase the likelihood that a client will contact the agency in the first instance if subsequent issues arise.


[i] The Australian Public Service Commission would like to thank the NSW Ombudsman's Office for allowing the use of Appendix 9 (page 130) of its Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Practice Manual (2nd Edition) in preparing and adapting this flowchart for the Australian Public Service.