In 2008 a group of cabin crew branded their passengers “chavs” on Facebook. In 2009 a woman known only as “Lindsay” posted – “OMG I hate my job! My boss is a total pervy w***er always making me do s*** stuff just to p*** me off!” In 2010 a TUI worker called her colleague “a brown-nosing cow.” And only last month, bank worker Stephanie Bon posted “New CEO gets £4,000 an hour. I get £7. That’s fair”.
A further case from earlier this year involved a shift manager at Wetherspoons in Cheshire who was subjected to verbal and physical threats by a group of customers. Unable to contact her manger who was on holiday, the frustrated employee posted about the abuse on Facebook. Unfortunately those making the threats managed to read the posts, one of which called the customer a “fu**ing moaning old hag”.
What do all these disgruntled employees now have in common? That’s right, not one of them is still employed by the employer they complained about (however, a spokesperson for the bank that employed Stephanie Bon has said that Stephanie’s departure from the bank had nothing to do with Facebook, but was because she was a short term worker whose services were no longer needed.
Nevertheless, these incidents highlight the difficult relationship between social networking sites and the employment relationship. Employees would no doubt argue that a Facebook post is similar in nature to a private, out-of-hours chat with a close friend over a cup of coffee and therefore nothing to do with their employment.
However, many employers feel differently. Most social networking sites (be it Facebook, Twitter, or something entirely different) are not private – your wall posts can be seen by all your “friends” and, if your privacy settings are not high enough, by complete strangers as well.
In some cases, the alleged misconduct on the part of the employee may seem more obviously unacceptable – for example, if an employee was found to be posting highly confidential information on their Twitter feed, many people may agree that some form of disciplinary action is reasonable. But can the same really be said for someone posting a personal, albeit, uncomplimentary, opinion? Does a public expression of a dislike for your boss really amount to gross misconduct?
But it’s not just employees who are having their say on Facebook. Lindsay’s complaint about her boss (referred to above) resulted in the following post in response from her boss (who no doubt Lindsay had forgotten she had added as a friend): “Firstly, don’t flatter yourself. Secondly, you’ve worked here 5 months and didn’t work out that I’m gay? Thirdly, that ‘s**t stuff’ is called your ‘job'”. Lindsay was then informed not to return to work.
But what can employees do to try and protect themselves? First think about whether you really need to be Facebook friends with everyone in the office (those who you do befriend, but who you hardly know, will see everything that you write, and might not necessarily keep it to themselves); whether your privacy settings are high enough so that only friends can see your posts; and whether you really need to share that rant with all your friends and followers. You probably wouldn’t put up a poster advertising your feelings on the office notice board, so do you really want to do it on Facebook?
In order to avoid confusion over the status of social networking sites and information posted on them, it is important for employers to have a clear IT Policy, which highlights its expectations, and its employees’ responsibilities, in relation to posting on social media websites, both in and out of work. A clearly drafted policy, properly notified to all staff, will help to give the employers the conviction they need to take action if they feel that a member of staff has used a social networking site in such a way as to damage either the reputation of the business, or the working relationship between employer and employee.