Social Media and The Workplace- Damaging the Employer’s Reputation

19 May, 2017

Social media is now a way of life.  It is everywhere you look and will have a presence in most things you do, both within the work environment and as part of your personal and social life.  The average person has approximately five social media accounts and spends roughly one and a half hours browsing on these networks every day.   

Wherever the social media activities of employees impact on the employment relationship- a topic discussed at Cripps Pemberton Greenish’s recent HR Forums- it is not just precious hours that you could be losing to your social media habits. 

Employers are increasingly taking disciplinary action and dismissing employees where their social media activity damages the employer’s reputation, damages relationships with customers or colleagues, or otherwise calls into the question the suitability of the employee to continue in their particular job role.  The recent case of Plant v API Microelectronics Ltd demonstrates just this.

Overview

In 2015 the employer, API Microelectronics, introduced a new social media policy that provided for disciplinary action and the potential sanction of dismissal where an employee’s use of social networks might cause damage to the reputation of the company.  The policy gave a non-exhaustive list of what was considered to be irresponsible posting behaviour.

The employee, Mrs Plant, who had been working as a machinery operative for the company for 17 years, posted a comment on her Facebook page.  Her comment did not mention the name of her employer, but her profile page showed that she was an employee of the company and described her position at the company as a ‘dogsbody’.  Furthermore, her page was linked to the employer’s computer system.  The particular comment, which followed an announcement about the proposed relocation of the company’s factory, included the words “bloody place I need to hurry up and sue them”.

Despite Mrs Plant’s longstanding service to the company and clean disciplinary record she was dismissed on the grounds that her comments were inappropriate and breached the company’s social media policy.  The company considered that she had not provided an adequate enough explanation as to the reason behind her posts and that these posts were clearly aimed at the company.

Outcome

Mrs Plant applied to the employment tribunal on the grounds of unfair and wrongful dismissal, but the judge found in the employer’s favour.  Despite the judge stating that the decision might appear “harsh”, it was deemed that the employer’s reaction fell within the range of reasonable responses in the circumstances.  Mrs Plant was well aware of the employer’s social media policy and the potential consequences if she breached it. The “dogsbody” comment in her profile was derogatory and insulting both to the company and to her work colleagues, and the company was entitled to conclude that the “bloody place” comments were directed at it.

Practical Points to Take Away

For employers, this case shows that it is important to put in place water- tight social media policies that set clear guidelines and parameters for what the employer deems to be inappropriate behaviour.  Often dismissals in similar situations are found to be unfair because the employer did not lay down clear ground-rules and expected standards of behaviour through a clear social media policy.

The judgement noted that comments and posts can be forwarded on by friends and family, and there was a reminder to this effect in the social media policy.  Consequently employees should not solely rely on their social media privacy settings to prevent disciplinary action or dismissal.  Employees should take care to update their social media pages when social media policies are introduced and refrain from posting inappropriate comments across the board.

This decision is hard-line, but fell within the range of reasonable responses open to an employer.  It shows the importance for both employees and employers alike of being aware of the interface between social media and employment relationships in terms of company policies as well as personal behaviours.  Careless talk costs jobs and reputations.