Employers can be found guilty of discrimination in the workplace over comments made on social networking sites by staff members, if the action “falls within the course of employment”, an employment tribunal has warned.

Abraham Otomewo, a former manager of the Lewisham branch of mobile phone store Carphone Warehouse, took his employer to an employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, reports Out-Law.com.

As part of his case, he alleged that he had been the victim of harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation by two colleagues who used his iPhone without permission to update his Facebook status to read “finally came out the closet. I am gay and proud”.

The tribunal judged that, as the incident took place at work and involved employees of the same company, the employer could be held liable.

“The actions were done at work, during working hours and involved dealings between staff and their manager,” the tribunal said in its judgment.

“In all the circumstances the tribunal considered that this matter fell within the course of the employment.”

Out-Law.com, a news and advice site run by law firm Pinsent Masons, notes that employers can be held vicariously liable for discriminatory acts by their employees unless the employer can show that it took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent it.

Employment law expert Selwyn Blyth of Pinsent Masons said the case demonstrated the need for employers to incorporate social media issues into their anti-discrimination policies.

“A suitable policy could include an explicit comment that this particular conduct should not happen, as well as a clear statement of principle regarding harassment on the grounds of a colleague’s sexual orientation,” he said.

“It might also be worth pointing out that employees who bring personal technology, such as iPhones, into the workplace should be responsible for setting their own passwords or logging out of browsers, and perhaps that spot checks will be carried out to ensure that this is done.”