Social media in the workplace
Social media is a powerful tool in today’s society. Most of us will now have a Facebook, Twitter, or some other form of social media account and some will use these portals regularly to communicate their thoughts and feelings on day to day events. When it comes to employment, social media is now a powerful marketing tool. It offers employers the opportunity to increase their online presence and reach people whom they would never have been able to reach before, and all at limited or no cost. However, just as a social media post can increase an employers’ presence online in a positive way which encourages business, the flip side of this can also lead to the employers’ reputation being significantly damaged.
More and more employers these days are introducing social media policies within the workplace to ensure their employees are aware of what they can and cannot do when it comes to the use of social media in relation to their employment.
So, what happens when an employee posts a derogatory comment about their employers on social media? The recent decision in Plant v API Microelectronics is a cautionary tale for all employees and is a prime example of when a Facebook post leads to dismissal.
What happened in this case?
- Mrs Plant had been a machine operator with her employers for 17 years. She kept a clean disciplinary record during that time.
- Mrs Plant’s employer introduced a social media policy. This policy gave a non-exhaustive list of unacceptable social media activity which included placing comments online that could damage the reputation of the company.
- The policy also stated that conversations on Facebook are not truly private as they can be copied and forwarded to others.
- The policy made clear that breaches of the policy could lead to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal in serious cases.
- A few months after the introduction of the policy the employers made an announcement about a possible premises move. Shortly after this announcement Mrs Plant’s employers discovered that Mrs Plant had placed her job title on her personal Facebook profile as “general dogsbody” and made the following comment on her Facebook page, which was linked to her employers’ computer system: “PMSL bloody place I need to hurry up and sue them PMSL.”
- Mrs Plant’s employers began an investigation into her conduct as a result of this post and she was invited to a disciplinary hearing.
- Mrs Plant stated at the disciplinary hearing that she did not realise that her Facebook page was linked to her employers’ technology.
- Her employers made the decision to dismiss Mrs Plant for gross misconduct following the disciplinary meeting.
- The decision-maker at the disciplinary meeting took into account the derogatory nature of the comment, the fact this was a clear breach of company policy and the fact Mrs Plant was unable to provide an adequate explanation as to why she had made the comment.
- Mrs Plant appealed the decision but the decision was upheld by her employers.
- Mrs Plant claimed unfair dismissal in the employment tribunal.
What did the employment tribunal have to say?
The tribunal held that the employers’ decision to dismiss Mrs Plant was fair as it was within the range of reasonable responses to the conduct.
Mrs Plant accepted that she was aware of the social media policy put in place by her employers and accepted that her comment was a breach of this social media policy and had resulted in a breakdown in trust between herself and her employers.
The employment tribunal accepted that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that Mrs Plant had committed gross misconduct after a reasonable investigation. Mrs Plant was given the opportunity to provide an adequate explanation but failed to do so at the disciplinary and appeal hearings.
The tribunal rejected Mrs Plant’s arguments for unfair dismissal and noted that the decision to dismiss a long-serving employee with a clean record could be seen as harsh but the dismissal was still fair as the employers had reasonable grounds for the dismissal.
Lessons to be learned
This case is a stern warning to all employees when it comes to commenting about their employers on social media. Making any form of derogatory comment about your employers online could place your employment into jeopardy and could result in dismissal. Employees are strongly advised simply not to comment about their employers on social media, unless they have express permission from their employers to do so in the context of their employment in acting as a representative of the company.
Employers should ensure they have a clear social media policy in place so employees are aware of where they stand and are aware of what could constitute misconduct or gross misconduct and what the likely sanctions could be for this behaviour. Employers should provide training on any new social media policies to ensure the employees understand the document and are aware of the possible sanctions if they breach the policy. The employee should be asked to confirm they have read and understood the policy.
It should be remembered that employment tribunals take various factors into account when assessing whether a dismissal for social media misuse was fair, including the severity of the comments made by the employee and the impact of the comments on the employers’ reputation. Employers should be aware of these factors when considering dismissing an employee for social media misuse to protect themselves from successful unfair dismissal claims.
How can we help?
If you are an employer and would like to implement a social media policy into the workplace, if you are an employee and have any questions about this article, or if you require any other employment law advice, we are here to help.
Note: This article was first published on the Moray Employment Law website in August 2017.