Many people today use social media to communicate with friends and family or to follow their favourite celebrities. But what happens when somebody makes use of social media to post derogatory comments about their employer under the impression that the employer will not find out, realising only too late that their comments have become public knowledge?
A recent case where an employee was dismissed after posting comments about her employer on an account that was linked to the company shows that the role and influence of social media need to be incorporated into employment policies.
A social media policy had been introduced by the employer and listed a range of social media behaviours that were considered unacceptable, including the posting of comments that could cause damage to the reputation of the company. The policy also warned that comments made under the impression that they were private could well be copied by others and forwarded on without permission.
It was made clear to employees that if they breached the policy, they could face disciplinary action, including dismissal if the breach was serious enough.
The employee made a claim to the Employment Tribunal, saying that she had been unfairly dismissed but the tribunal upheld the decision to dismiss, saying:
“The claimant was aware of the policy and one assumes she read it. She must have been aware of what was and what was not allowed….In the absence of an adequate explanation from the claimant…the respondent was entitled to believe that these comments were aimed at the respondent…It may be seen as harsh but the respondents, taking account of the claimant’s long service and clear record, nevertheless dismissed for a clear breach of the policy and that would fall within the range of a reasonable response open to an employer.”
The employer was able to obtain a decision in their favour because they had a clear social media policy which let all employees know what was expected of them and what would happen if they breached the policy.
If an employer introduces such a policy, they should take steps to ensure employee understanding by the use of training courses and getting employees to sign a written document to confirm that they have read and understood the policy.
When considering social media-related dismissals, tribunals will take into account a number of factors, including:
what the comments were about;
how badly the reputation of the employer was damaged by them;
whether they represented a breach of confidentiality;
whether the employee had made the comments during work hours and on works equipment;
the existence of a social media policy and the degree to which employees are aware of it and have been trained on the correct use of social media;
other factors which could mitigate the charge.