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Hot topic: HR’s role when an employee faces scrutiny on social media, part one

Social media has given people unprecedented power to campaign against whatever they disagree with.

Recent examples of this escalation include Gary Lineker’s comparison of government language with that of Nazi Germany, which saw him temporarily taken off air by the BBC.

Presenter Fiona Bruce also became the subject of a social media row after remarks she was required to read on air about Stanley Johnson were perceived to trivialise domestic abuse. She has subsequently stepped down as an ambassador of domestic abuse charity Refuge.

If an employee faces similar scrutiny on social media though, what is HR’s role?

Social media in the workplace:

Leadership in an age of social media

Can employees be held liable for social media posts?

How to be your professional self on social media

Beth Samson, people director, Investors in People

As people/HR professionals, we have to find a difficult balance between protecting the interests of our organisation and those of individuals that work there.

However, in cases such as social media abuse, my advice would always be that caring for the individual at the centre should be the priority.

Studies have shown that social rejection is experienced in our brains the same way as physical pain, and so a deluge of abuse over social media can be extremely distressing.

The HR team should encourage the person to share how they are feeling, signpost accordingly and coach the manager of the individual so they can provide support and/or adjustments too.

However, it is important to avoid slipping into ‘rescuer’ mode or taking a personal stance on the issue being debated. Focusing on the person impacted and how they are feeling, without being drawn into the debate, is support enough.


Sophia Moreau, ethics, inclusion and organisational design consultant

Abuse that employees may face, particularly if they are from marginalised backgrounds, is very common on social media. It’s not uncommon for people to report receiving death threats. The knock-on effects can lead to physical effects including low mood, difficulty concentrating and difficulty sleeping.

It is key that employers find out what staff need and how they’d like to be supported. No two people will want or need the same thing in the context of bullying or abuse on social media.

Employers should make a clear distinction between scrutiny and abuse. Some scrutiny is completely fair in public platforms where discussion is expected.

Therefore, HR must find out what has happened before determining the organisational approach. It may be that the organisation needs to produce a statement condemning the circumstances, or they might need to show solidarity with the employee outwardly.

Finally, employers need to review their wellbeing approach and ensure all managerial staff are equipped to support employees in this space.


Click here for part two of this hot topic.

The full article of the above first appeared in the March/April 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.