Recent high profile stories have again highlighted potential issues for employers that arise from use of social media and email by employees. While social media provides undoubted opportunities for organisations to project a positive image, it also brings its own risks.
Liverpool Football Club's Ryan Babel was recently fined £10,000 by the Football Association for an outburst on the popular micro-blogging website Twitter. Following his team's controversial defeat, he posted a mocked-up photo of referee, Howard Webb, wearing a Manchester United strip and wrote: "And they call him one of the best referees. That's a joke." Although the comments were clearly his own, Babel was fined for bringing the game into disrepute, reflecting badly on his employer, Liverpool Football Club.
The balancing act
Employees are also increasingly using social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) for business purposes as well as socially. Employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees where they are "acting in the course of employment". As technology makes our working hours more fluid, the question of where employment ends and private life begins is becoming increasingly difficult to identify. As a result, what is within the “course of employment” has been interpreted with a very wide application.
In a recent Employment Tribunal decision it was held an employer had been fair in dismissing an employee for sending an offensive email to another colleague. The employee had sent the email from his home computer to his colleague’s home computer. However the email had included words to the effect that it should be passed on. On that basis the Tribunal held it was clearly not meant to be private and the employee had no control over what would happen once he sent it. The colleague had indeed passed it on to a third colleague’s work computer where it came to light. An investigation subsequently found the employee who sent the original email guilty of gross misconduct.
Educate and enforce policies
Cases such as these highlight the importance of having and communicating adequate policies and procedures for employees to follow.
Use of social media and email for personal purposes should be dealt with under a suitably robust usage policy. In contrast to the decision mentioned above another Employment Tribunal decision recently found that two employees were unfairly dismissed for excessive internet usage because the company's policy on this matter was unclear.
An internet policy might include rules about accessing social media sites at work, information about what monitoring might be undertaken by the employer and an obligation on the employee not to disclose confidential information or make defamatory or discriminatory comments about the company or its customers. It should also be clear about the sort of conduct expected from employees and when that conduct might amount to gross misconduct.
If an employee is going to be posting on social media platforms on behalf of their organisation, the provision of training and the implementation of a sound, coherent policy on social media is advisable, no matter what the size of their organisation.
Many organisations already have policies and procedures in place to cover these types of issues. However, as technology develops ever faster, many of these may be out of date and should be constantly reviewed and updated.
Employees should be made aware that even comments on their personal profile pages, and posts, which they assume are private, may be at risk of bringing the organisation into disrepute, which could amount to gross misconduct in some severe situations.