Due to the BBC’s recent tightening of restrictions when it comes to staff sharing their political opinions online, HRreview asks professionals what rights employers have when it comes to discipling employees for posting on their own social media accounts.  

In September 2020, the director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, sent out a memo to staff at the BBC which stated an incoming, updated policy of appropriate social media usage for employees. Mr. Davie stated the BBC’s need to “champion and recommit to impartiality”.

On the 29th September 2020, Mr. Davie further explained his dedication to “rigorously enforcing” these new guidelines, saying:

 We will be able to take people off Twitter. I am prepared to take the appropriate disciplinary action, all the way to termination.

This topic has raised questions about the jurisdiction of employers to control what employees write on their personal social media accounts.

Kate Palmer, associate director of HR Advisory at Peninsula, said:

In theory, employers do have minimal control over what an employee posts on their private social media account; after all, it is being done outside of work. That said, they may be able to take action if certain posts call into question the reputation of the company, or if social media is being used by employees to bully colleagues outside of work.

However, if the post is connected to their role, and it is specified in company policy what is not acceptable online content, the company may be able to proceed with disciplinary action. However, in doing so, they will need to conduct a fair investigation into the incident.

Emma Swan, partner and head of commercial employment at Forbes Solicitors, said:

The boundaries between an employee’s personal and professional lives are very blurred when it comes to posting on social media. An employee has the right to claim they are acting in a personal capacity when they are posting via their own social media profiles. However, if their social media accounts are open to the public or they are connected to colleagues, then an employer could be entitled to rely on those posts to take action against them.

If their actions and content risk bringing their employer’s reputation into disrepute or they have breached company policies such as equality and diversity, they are likely to find they are in breach of their employment contract and could face disciplinary action and even dismissal. Most companies now have specific social media policies to make rules and guidelines explicitly clear for employees using social media, irrelevant of whether that’s inside or outside of contracted working hours.

Sam Murray-Hinde, partner at Howard Kennedy LLP, adds:

 The employer’s position will be stronger where it has an existing social media policy. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the comments are directed at the employer or its staff in cases where the employer is readily identifiable from the post. Reputational damage is often of huge concern, particularly where there’s a suggestion that the view expressed in the post is that of the employer.