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Twitter troubles?

Last month two nurses were dismissed for tweeting personal details about patients and posting picture of themselves online wearing incontinence pads.

Last month two nurses were dismissed for tweeting personal details about patients and posting picture of themselves online wearing incontinence pads. Other similar dismissals have taken place where employees have described their job as boring or referred to customers of an organisation as "chavs" online. Dismissals for such extreme activities may not surprise anybody but the difficulty for employers often comes in knowing where to draw the line when employees misuse social media communication tools such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wiki.

What are the boundaries? How can an employer help themselves to walk the difficult line between the duty that an employee owes to them and the right of that employee to privacy in their personal life?

The first key to effective management of these issues is a well drafted social media policy which should be tailored to the work environment in question. Attitudes towards appropriate use of social media vary depending upon the nature of the business, job roles of employees and the workplace environment itself.

Some organisations operate a total ban. However some employees need to use social media as part of their job, for example those involved in marketing. It is important to think carefully about whether occasional personal use of social media will be tolerated and, if so, consider setting out what level of usage will be deemed acceptable. If some personal use is allowed then there should be clear guidelines stating that it must not involve unprofessional or inappropriate conduct, bring the employer into dispute, or affect performance of duties.

Prudent employers have a general provision in relation to monitoring in their social media policies which allow them to intercept and review an employee’s usage of social media. There are potential privacy implications but the options for an employer who needs to investigate are much wider if employees have been warned in a policy that monitoring might take place. Where preservation of reputation is particularly important some employers carry out internet monitoring to alert them to any mention of the organisation’s name, although obviously such monitoring needs to be proportionate and reasonable.

Steps should be taken to make the policy widely available to staff, and it is also important to enforce it consistently. If there are breaches of the policy and an employer does not take disciplinary action in one situation it might make it difficult to take action in similar cases in the future.

Employers need to be vigilant about complaints of harassment or discrimination between employees that are alleged to have happened via social media and need to treat such complaints raised by one employee against another in the same way as they would treat a complaint raised in a non social medial context. Reviewing bullying and harassment policies to make sure they cover cyber-bullying is an essential first step.

Finally Employers do need to be wary that they do not restrict in any way an individual’s right to freedom of expression, curtail a general right to privacy, or prevent them from making a public interest disclosure (whistleblowing). These remain difficult areas of the law where advice and training for managers can often be beneficial.

Bernadette Worthington is a Partner based in our Liverpool Office. If you have any queries regarding the issues raised in this article please contact Bernadette.Worthington@weightmans.com