The rules of social media engagement are quickly being determined as both employers and employees wade further into the digital ether, says Toronto employment lawyer Doug MacLeod.
“Social media becomes a problem when people start posting information that is inconsistent with the company’s brand,” says MacLeod, principal at MacLeod Law Firm.
It’s become an important and inexpensive tool for marketing and branding businesses. And individual employees are often leveraged as brand ambassadors online, says MacLeod.
However, the same employees also use sites like Facebook and Twitter to post personal information, and those messages may not be what the company wants communicated. There are times when that message offends and could put the company in a precarious position, says MacLeod.
But employees are not alone in making mistakes in the digital age.
An Australian company was recently derided for sending termination notices to more than 50 employees through an overnight text message. The 56 workers at Hutchison Port’s container terminal received texts telling them to check their email which informed them not to turn up for work the next day.
Both employers and employees need to be mindful of social media pitfalls, says MacLeod.
He notes there have been some very public firings in recent years over what employees have posted on sites like Facebook. He suggests it’s a good idea for people to consider what they write before they post it, particularly if they value their jobs.
“Many people don’t appreciate that things they do on their own private time can affect their relationships with their employers,” he says.
He points to two Toronto firefighters who made comments on Twitter related to the department’s initiative to encourage women to join, believing the tweets to be private. The tweets were printed by the National Post, resulting in the two firefighters being terminated, although that decision was later overturned for one of them who was instead handed a suspension. The tweets were deemed harmful to the reputation of the fire service and a violation of city policy.
MacLeod says it’s interesting to note that all the Facebook- and Twitter-related firings he’s seen have involved unionized workers, except one.
“Social media is here to stay,” he says. “Almost all employees are on social media and it’s imperative that businesses make them aware of their company’s policy.”
Should an offensive comment become public, doing nothing could impact the brand and suggest that the company is OK with that disparaging sentiment, MacLeod warns.
Judicators and judges have found that everything one posts on social media is considered public. Employees could find themselves in hot water if their comments undermine the employer, particularly if the behaviour is repeated, he adds.
But the situations, employers’ reactions, and final determinations by the courts continue to evolve.
“I think many decisions will come down to the personal sensibility of the judge,” MacLeod says. “Social media is a force of darkness and a force of light as well. It’s just how it’s managed.”