Social media – the employee challenges and the steps to take

A look at a recent case in which an airline passenger was arrested after making a 'joke' threat on social media that he would blow up an airport.

Paul Stacey, an airline passenger frustrated at flight delays at Nottingham airport tweeted a ‘joke’ threat about “blowing you [the airport] sky high” if the delays were not resolved. If the remark had been made in private to a friend it is unlikely that any consequences would have flowed from it. However, it was posted on Twitter where it was viewed as a threat of terrorism. Mr Stacey was arrested, imprisoned, and lost two jobs before successfully appealing against his conviction.

The case demonstrates the drastic consequences of social media misuse, and acts as a warning to employers to protect their business from ill-conceived social media postings made by their employees.

Social media has revolutionised how we communicate, yet poses numerous challenges for many businesses whose policies were drafted before the advent of such technology.

The challenges include:

  • Potential reputational damage – caused by inappropriate/offensive comments;
  • Bullying and harassment – eg, cyber bullying of staff;
  • Breach of confidentiality – eg, referring to a client relationship or confidential deal on a professional networking site such as Linked In;
  • Blurring of the line between what happens ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ work; and
  • Employee ignorance of both the potential ‘reach’ and interpretation of their online comments.

This is a developing area of law, and few cases have proceeded beyond first instance Tribunal decisions. However, the clear message from these cases suggests that an employer seeking to discipline employees for unacceptable use of social media must first make clear to employees the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable online conduct.

The first step to tackling these problems would be to implement a social media policy which sets clear boundaries on acceptable use of social media. It should operate in conjunction with your existing policies, especially those on equality.

The next step is to train your staff following the roll-out of your new policy. Some staff may genuinely not appreciate the risks involved with social media, and it would be wise to stress to staff that the training is there to help them avoid landing in hot water as a result of their online comments.

Your training should at least cover the following points:

  1. You may wish to consider requiring all employees to remove any reference to their employer on any social networking sites (with the exception of ‘professional’ networking sites such as LinkedIn);
  2. Stress to your staff that once a comment is posted online it has a potentially global audience, they lose control over who reads it as it can be disseminated by their intended audience, and therefore where an inappropriate online comment is brought to your attention employees will not be allowed to claim that any online comments were intended to be ‘private’. The cases so far appear to support the view that the very nature of social media postings is that they are intended for an ‘audience’, therefore the poster waives any rights to private and family life under the Human Rights Act by virtue of having posted the comment online, regardless of the use of privacy settings;
  3. Make it clear that your policies on bullying, harassment, conduct, and particularly equality, apply outside of working hours. Any online comments of a discriminatory nature, or which could be deemed to bully, harass or humiliate another employee will attract the same disciplinary sanction as if they had been physically spoken in the workplace;
  4. “Common sense training”. Some staff may not appreciate that the irony or intended humour of a comment is lost when it simply appears typed on a screen. Advise them to think carefully before posting what they think may be a hilarious joke. Train staff to ask themselves “would you be happy reading this to an Employment Tribunal judge?” before posting; and
  5. Confidentiality. Advise staff to avoid naming any third parties on social networking sites such as Linked In.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that, in terms of profile and brand identity, social media has many potential benefits to your organisation if used correctly. You may want to consider actively encouraging employees to contribute to your company’s ‘official’ online presence. This may increase your employees’ understanding of company’s online brand and the need to protect its reputation, thereby providing the ‘carrot’ to accompany your new policy’s ‘stick’.

John McDermott, Solicitor, john.mcdermott@weightmans.com

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