Mark Pentecost: When social media is anti-social

We are past the festive period and the long month of January is coming to an end. Many of us are detoxing after the Christmas excesses and others are putting those New Year’s resolutions into effect by doing more exercise or even joining a gym.

However, for some employees and employers the hangover from December could be longer lasting and much more embarrassing. I’m talking about social media misuse and work.

For many years now there has been the problem of rogue emails sent within the workplace being forwarded on and very quickly becoming viral. Not long ago a trainee solicitor in London found that his prospects were very swiftly curtailed after an indiscreet internal email bragging about his excessive lifestyle and making derogatory remarks about a client got outside the firm.

However, the advent of social media has magnified the problem. More and more we are finding that throwaway comments made by an employee on social media puts the employee in a difficult position. Facebook posts, tweets and videos on YouTube can very quickly end up in the public domain, and may go viral. Naturally, employers will be very concerned about the potential damage to their reputation.

Employers do need to approach these issues with caution. Recently a Somerfield employee posted a clip on YouTube showing another employee, in a Somerfield uniform, being hit with a plastic bag. The employee was dismissed on the basis that they had brought the company into disrepute. But the manager had not seen the video, and didn’t take into account the fact that the clip was only online for three days and only eight people in total had seen it (three of whom were Somerfield management staff!).

The result was that the complaint brought to tribunal for unfair dismissal was upheld and it created more bad publicity for the employer than the original video did!

Employers do have protection in cases of social media abuse, though, as long as they properly look at the facts and follow correct procedure.

An Apple employee recently posted derogatory comments about Apple and its products on his private Facebook page. Apple dismissed the employee on the basis that he had brought the company into disrepute. The tribunal held that the dismissal was fair.

In another case a shift manager at Wetherspoons made inappropriate comments while at work on her Facebook page about customers. She was dismissed.

Despite her claim that the privacy settings on her Facebook account meant that only her friends could see her posts and that the comments were not public, the tribunal found that the dismissal was fair. The tribunal noted that while posts online may be ‘private’, the fact is that comments can so easily be forwarded, leaving the employee with little or no control over them.

Employers should make sure that they have a social media policy in place which sets out clearly the boundaries of what they consider is acceptable. Employees should be very cautious these days about what they post online. Especially after a few drinks at the office party.

Mark Pentecost is a trainee solicitor at Sanderson McCreath and Edney.