Unfair Dismissal & Social Media

05 May 2015

Unfair Dismissal? Social Media Use at Work May Cause You to Lose Your Job

Everyone’s had them. Blue Mondays and Terrible Tuesdays. And in this technological age the usual way to ‘let off a little bit of steam’ at the end of a bad workday is to go onto Facebook or Twitter and have a good old moan about it.

But before you do that, pause and take a few deep breaths. Because that ‘I hate my job’ status update or ‘My boss is a joke’ hashtag-(insert expletive here) tweet could quite easily cost you your job.

Update in haste, repent at leisure

If you participate in any form of social media, you’ll know just how easy it is to Tweet in anger or update your FB status with a passive-aggressive post you might later regret. What is often forgotten in the heat of the moment, though, is that the tweet or status update - once you’ve released it into the wild - is there for everyone to see – including your boss. It’s in what is known as the ‘public domain’, and if it could be construed as defamatory to your boss or the company you work for, you can be held accountable.

But I didn’t tweet at work!

Those who have encountered either a stiff reprimand or even dismissal as a result of their social media activity often try and justify their actions by arguing the tweet or update was done from home and in their own time, and not from a work computer. However, this excuse won’t wash in any unfair dismissal case where an employee has been sacked because of their online activities.  

Put simply, whether you’re ‘on the clock’ or not, what you say about your company or your boss reflects back onto the business, and it could be argued that you are damaging the reputation of the business if your tweet is of the ‘I hate my job’ type. This falls under the ‘Conduct’ category of justifiable reasons for dismissal, even if you’re not sitting at your work desk when you send the tweet.  

Isn’t this an invasion of privacy?

What you do in the privacy of your home or on your own time is, to an extent, your own affair. But if you then take that action out into the public domain by, for example, tweeting that your office is a bad place to work, then you are subject to the same laws on defamation – or even libel – as everyone else. (Remember, it’s libel if it’s written down and slander if you say it verbally.) At the very least a tweet or status update that makes your boss look like some kind of Basil Fawlty character could result in a reprimand or even dismissal for misconduct.

How do they find out?

Bosses and company HR specialists realise just how powerful a tool social media can be. One tweet could break a company’s reputation overnight, send their stock into a nosedive, or encourage customers to abandon the business for their rivals. And if that tweet was sent by someone on the inside then the sense of betrayal is magnified. Businesses have as much right to defend themselves and their reputation as anyone else, so it’s little wonder that they’re now checking up what their employees say and do online. Some multi-nationals employ personnel specifically to look at what is being said about the company online, including what employees are saying in their Facebook and Twitter updates. And if they find something that could be regarded as defamatory, the author of that status update or tweet could be in a lot of trouble.

But I’ve got the privacy settings set for friends only…

That cheeky photo of you making a rude gesture at a picture of your boss might be set to private on your timeline. But if one of your friends either retweets the picture or posts it on their timeline and tags you then everyone (including your by-now incredibly irate boss) can see it. Don’t assume that because you have your privacy settings on high that your comments are safe.

What if I didn’t actually say what they said I said?

If you can prove that you didn’t tweet a defamatory comment or feel that it has led to an unfair dismissal situation, you could challenge the decision. However, it can be incredibly difficult to prove on the balance of probabilities that the tweet or update in question wasn’t meant to be defamatory, or was sent by someone who had access to your account as a ‘joke’. After all, the tweet or update is there, in black and white, for everyone to see.

So if you do feel that you have grounds for an unfair dismissal claim then the best thing to do is to talk to unfair dismissal solicitors, who can determine whether you have a case.

At Co-op Legal Services, our Unfair Dismissal Solicitors specialise in claims including those brought by people who feel that they have lost their job due to an online misunderstanding. Proving that your boss has over-reacted to a tweet, for example, or that the act of dismissing you is disproportionate to the perceived damage done by the tweet or update, needs to be handled by an expert in unfair dismissal claims.

What’s the best way to avoid all this?

Simple – never tweet while angry. Never update your Facebook status on the commute home. And never call your boss names or imply that your workplace is ‘a dump’ online. Remember that once you press ‘Send’, that tweet or update is out there for everyone to see. And as businesses and bosses get more social media savvy, there are consequences for hasty tweets or angry updates.

If you’ve had a bad day, stay away from your phone or computer. Go for a walk, avoid technology and the temptation to vent online. Or post a picture of a kitten playing the piano. That always goes down well with everyone!

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