Whether we like it or not, social media affects almost every aspect of our daily lives, including employment relationships. How can employees’ ‘private’ social media posts bring an employer’s business into disrepute and lead to an employee’s dismissal? Shouldn’t employees have privacy out of work? On the other hand, if a post adversely affects an employer, shouldn’t they be able to act?
The problem with social media
Gone are the days of casual conversations with a limited audience. Social media can reach thousands of people with the click of a button and filter into real life to have an impact on our working environment. An employee’s social media posts ‘shared’ only with family and friends, may ultimately be far from ‘private’. That post or a screenshot can be forwarded and shared with a limitless audience.
A social media post (or a like, comment, hashtag or tweet) is often made emotionally or in the heat of the moment, but can be permanent and can quickly cause damage and/or have effects on a business — with far-reaching consequences.
Bringing your employer into disrepute
As an employee, if your conduct impacts (or potentially impacts) adversely on your employer’s business or reputation, you could be deemed to bring your employer into disrepute. It is conduct that intrudes on your workplace relationships and obligations, or your ability to do your job. It could be during working hours or outside of it, but there must be a clear link between the conduct and employment.
The line between personal opinion and employer disrepute is murky. Employers need to consider whether an objective, fair-minded and independent observer aware of the circumstances could have considered an employee’s actions/posts have brought or carry a reasonable risk of bringing it into disrepute.
Some examples leading to dismissal
The range of behaviour is wide but whether it is bad enough to warrant dismissal will depend on an employee’s position and the sector in which the employer operates.
In a recent case, the dismissal of a nurse was justified after she posted her views on vaccination on Facebook. She argued the posts were private, was unaware of their reach and posted opinions often shared by others, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) disagreed. There was a significant risk of harm to her DHB employer’s reputation if her posts had been viewed by the wider public, especially as she was a community nurse.
In some cases, liking or commenting on someone else’s posts may be enough to bring an employer into disrepute. In a 2014 case, an employment advocate (who was representing an employee) made negative posts about that person’s employer. The employee (whose Facebook identified her employer) liked the advocate’s posts. She was endorsing disparaging views and ensuring the posts were shared with her ‘friends’ who were other employees or customers. Her dismissal was justified.
Social media posts may also affect the work environment, or lead to claims of bullying and harassment within it. Examples include employees sharing explicit videos with other employees (even outside of work) via Facebook Messenger or making offensive comments about other employees. All employees should think twice before posting embarrassing work party photos, as this could also be found to be bullying or harassment.
What about privacy?
As an employer, you may become aware of social media posts because you are a ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ of your employee or have been provided them by someone who is.
No privacy breach will occur if a legitimate recipient provides this to you; as social media is objectively in the public domain and may go beyond ‘friends’ and ’followers.’ You cannot force your employee to give you access to their private accounts or coerce others into doing so.
When the matter ends up before the ERA, it has the power to order disclosure of this material, if it is relevent. The ERA may also order your employee not to make any posts on social media about your business, employees or any confidential information.
What can you do?
Employees must always think twice when posting on social media. If you are posting anything which may be associated with your employer, your workplace or that may impact on your ability to do your job you should err on the side of caution. Where your workplace has a distinctive brand or uniform ensure these are not in any post unless your employer has authorised this placement.
Employers should have a social media and internet use policy in place and/or a clause in employment agreements. Investigate any allegations and follow a full and fair process before making any decisions, particularly where there is the possibility your employee may be dismissed. You must also be careful of your own social media posts of, or about, employees.
Social media can be a minefield from an employment viewpoint. If you need any guidance, please don’t hesitate to contact us.