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Inappropriate Comments on Social Media

There is always a hum of social media chatter these days. Top of the Twitter trends as I write this is the shocking news that the Great British Bake Off is moving to Channel 4. Well, there you go....... I am constantly amazed how many people spend so much time gossiping about such trivia. It takes all sorts.

There are growing numbers of stories about employees who say things on social media that can have an impact on the workplace. We recently dealt with a case of exactly that. An employee had tweeted about how he was going to ‘sever the heads of A, B and C’. The manager said that A, B and C were the initials of her colleagues. Her next tweet said ‘their time has come’.

The employee was off sick at the time with depression. He was clearly not in a good frame of mind. When we tried to get the employee back to work we were faced with a walk out by other employees. Only the MD would have been left if we had allowed this employee to come back to work. When speaking to the employee about what his colleagues had said he told us he didn’t understand why they didn’t want him back!

Although most social media is used by employees for personal use it has a habit of causing problems within the workplace. An employee only has to say something slightly controversial or have a disagreement with someone and problems can start. For most employees it is not necessary for them to say where they work on either Facebook or Twitter.

It is when an employee’s social media profile says where he works and he then makes an inappropriate comment that bigger issues can arise. It can become not just an issue internally but also publicly for the Company.

In British Waterways Board (t/a Scottish Canals) v Smith [2015] the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that the employer had fairly dismissed an employee who made inappropriate comments about work on his Facebook page.

Mr Smith was a canal operative who worked on standby for emergency call outs. Alcohol consumption is not allowed during a standby period. His employer became aware that he had posted some derogatory comments about his managers on Facebook.

Comments included: “going to be a long day - I hate my work”, “why are gaffers such pricks, is there some kind of book teaching them to be total wankers” and “on standby tonight so only going to get half pissed lol”.

Mr Smith admitted that he had made the comments, but said that he thought his Facebook account was private and that his comments were only banter. He also relied on his eight years’ good service, that the comments were two years old, and that he had not identified his employer by name.

He was dismissed. The employment tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair. The tribunal found that the employer should have taken into account the mitigating factors and that his employer was not readily identifiable.

On appeal the EAT disagreed, saying the employer was entitled to take Mr Smith’s misconduct seriously and it carried out a fair procedure before dismissing him.

Ensure that your social media policy and discipline policy are both checked and updated regularly. Your social media policy should include all social media sites not just the common ones such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. There are others that are always emerging including Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and Flickr. It should be clear what information employees are allowed to share about where they work and what is expected from employees when they are using social media. If you have any employees who use the Company’s social media sites you will also need some rules and guidelines in place about acceptable usage for this.

We deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of HR. If you need help resolving social media issues or any other HR issues, give us a call on 01908 262628.

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