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A cautionary tale for employers over Facebook comments

A cautionary tale for employers over Facebook comments
Richard Rowell
Written by
Tuesday, 25 October 2011 12:05

At a recent employment tribunal it was held that dismissing an employee for uploading relatively minor work based comments onto Facebook was unfair.

Law firm Pinsent Masons reported:

"W was employed as a team leader for Skoda Customer Services, an important client of her employer.  Representatives of Skoda worked along side her.  She had been employed since 2007 and had been an exemplary employee with a clean disciplinary record."

"In September 2010, after a difficult day at work W posted a comment on Facebook saying: "I think I work in a nursery and I do not mean working with plants."  W's profile was set so that only her friends could see the messages she posted but some of her colleagues, including representatives of Skoda were her Facebook friends.  W's comment attracted a few posts in response and the exchange ended with an ex-employee saying "Ya, work with a lot of planks though!!! LOL", and W replying "2 true xx"."

The matter was brought to the attention of W's line manager by two of W's colleagues who were Facebook friends.  The manager viewed the messages and considered them "unacceptable". W was suspended pending disciplinary proceedings.  W sent a "grovelling" letter of apology which was considered at her disciplinary hearing.  However, W was dismissed for misconduct due to the detrimental effect her comments could have on her employer's relationship with Skoda.  W appealed against her dismissal but was unsuccessful.

The employment tribunal decided that the dismissal fell outside the band of reasonable responses and was therefore unfair.  Of importance to the tribunal was the fact that the comments did not actually refer to the client, but rather were complaints about her working conditions and her colleagues.  Further, the employer failed to produce any evidence of actual or likely harm to the relationship with Skoda.  The tribunal noted that it would be very odd for companies of such a large size to terminate an important commercial agreement because of relatively minor comments made by a junior employee on Facebook.

This case has served as a useful reminder of the risks that come with being Facebook friends with colleagues.

However, it also provides useful guidance for employers on how to deal with employees who make work-related remarks on social networking sites.

Adverse comments like those seen in this case will almost always warrant some form of disciplinary action, however employers must be careful that they are not too quick to dismiss in such a situation. Making some assessment of the harm that might be caused by the comments is important, especially in relation to the effect on relationships with third parties.  Only where there is clear evidence of a negative impact will a serious disciplinary sanction, such as dismissal, be justified.

Richard Rowell

Richard is the CEO of Dataplan Payroll Limited and is also responsible for the ideas and development of Dataplan's innovative technology solutions such as ePaysafe.

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