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Social networking: the challenge for employers

As a result of the growth of online social networking sites in recent times, employers are being forced to address a number of related issues. Thoughts and opinions that would have once been exchanged in private, now find their way onto the internet where they can be viewed by large numbers of individuals or are even made available to the public as whole.

A common problem appears to be that employees consider their comments on such sites to be invisible to their employer. This was clearly the case in January 2009, when Marks & Spencer staff were caught branding customers as 'idiots' and 'cheap little b******,' on an online forum. Shortly before that, British Airways staff referred to passengers as 'smelly and annoying’. Recently, an employee, after adding her boss as an online friend, later described him as being lecherous towards her and said," My boss is always making me do s*** stuff just to p*** me off!!" It took a matter of hours before her fate was sealed in a response from her boss which itself became an internet sensation, with images of the exchange emailed around the world.  He replied: "Hi Lindsay, I guess you forgot about adding me on here?" before going on to sack her.

The most recently reported matter concerned a bank worker who lost her redundancy payment when minutes after having received the announcement of widespread redundancies, she described it as the "best news ever" on her Facebook wall. She added, "I speak for myself when I say WoOOOOooooOooooHOoooOooOoo it was pretty damn obvious something like this was coming". A colleague reported her comments and she was dismissed for breaching her ‘declaration of secrecy’. Whilst this matter may well find its way to a Tribunal for determination, it exposes some interesting questions for employers such as what they can do to protect themselves from unwelcome exposure in this way.

Facebook alone has over 500 million reported users with over 200 million of them accessing the site through mobile phones and 700 billion minutes are spent on the site each month.  Employers are therefore well advised to adopt strict policies for internet and telephone use during working hours. However, when it comes to online incidents occurring outside of working hours, this involves a difficult exercise of ensuring a balance is struck between the employee’s right to a private life with the employer’s right to protect their business and its reputation. Employers can only take reasonable action in response to comments recorded by employees. Personal prejudices must be kept to one side and action would only be appropriate if the employee has stated something that genuinely puts the reputation of a business at risk. This will entail close scrutiny of what is written and who would be able to see it.

This is clearly a developing area of employment law, and with social networking growing ever more popular by the day, it is likely there will be many more dismissals as a consequence of alleged misuse.

Ben Williams is a barrister at Kings Chambers in Manchester and Leeds