Anti-social media

Posted Wednesday 9th October 2019

The age of social media

We live in an age where we are spoilt for choice for all media deemed ‘social.’ Most of us seem just as likely to have a personal Twitter or Instagram account as we are to have a telephone line at home, and perhaps more likely to use the former examples with some regularity.

Social media gives us all the power to share thoughts, frustrations, ideas and criticisms with immediacy and without cost. Its informality can remove some of the boundaries of more traditional forms of communication. But – to borrow a phrase from the Marvel universe – with great power comes great responsibility.

When media gets ‘anti-social’

The footprint of social media is often forgotten, and sometimes hard and often impossible to completely remove. Although Twitter activity can be deleted, once seen and shared (in some cases, reported by mainstream media) its legacy will remain long after its intended (or even unintended) mark has been hit.

An ill-judged comment can provoke questions about an individual’s judgement, behaviour and could even result in their losing a job. A set of tweets from the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner, Paris Brown, led to her resigning from her post after some of her historic output was called out as both racist and homophobic. When she explained her words as being borne of bravado, the die had already been cast; her activity, whether recent or from her archive, meant that maintaining her position would not have sat well with those by whom she had been appointed as well as those she had been appointed to support and inspire.

More recently, Manchester City footballer Bernardo Silva has been reprimanded and was charged for posting a comment deemed as racist about one of his teammates. Although he has denied that his intention was to be offensive, there is no doubt that many will have disagreed with the meaning of his posts, explicit or otherwise.

Perhaps there is a cost to engaging with social media after all.

Employers’ obligations

Where does this leave employers, and when and how should they step in?

A crucial first port of call is to set clear boundaries and guidelines for employees. No matter how obvious they might seem, employees require a set of guidelines to which they need to adhere. Employers also need that framework on which to fall back on should behaviour fall foul of what might be considered reasonable and sensitive.

As much as we would like to, it’s not always enough to rely on employees’ common sense, though it is in our best interests as employers to recruit people who are well versed in taking a sensible and sensitive approach in relation to social media.

How bad can it be?!

A well drafted employment contract will include a power to dismiss without notice where an employee brings its employer into disrepute. When an employee crosses the line insofar as damage to their employers’ reputation is concerned, an employer has precedent to draw upon should things take an unpleasant turn. In Weeks vs Everything Everywhere, Mr Weeks made several social media postings in which he described his place of work as “Dante’s inferno.” His employer had explicitly prohibited criticism of Everything Everywhere on employees’ personal social media accounts. Mr Weeks was dismissed for gross misconduct, losing a subsequent appeal.

Before employers find themselves in Everything Everywhere’s position, however, it is worth reminding employees of their obligations and doing so at various stages of the employment relationship. Businesses ought to be clear that they may look at prospective employees’ social media output prior to interview, and that their social media policy will stretch to activity carried out in their own ‘free’ time away from work (but relating to work). If social profiles and accounts are to be screened routinely post hire, employers will need to make this clear too.

With openness, transparency, and some good judgement, social media needn’t be anti-social.

This article is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.

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