Croydon, United Kingdom (PressExposure) May 21, 2011 -- If recent studies are to be believed, millions of hours a month are lost through employees accessing social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Is this a friend or foe to business and how can it be avoided?
Having advised a large call centre recently, it is evident that Facebook can be used to undermine an employer's reputation. A disgruntled employee with an axe to grind had set up a Facebook group with a title that would make Mary Whitehouse blanch. Needless to say, it was directed at the company. This is a common occurrence and a number of businesses including Argos, Lloyds TSB and London Transport have banned access altogether - but there have been plenty of cases where employment solicitors like Thomas Mansfield have been called in.
In a recent case of Preece v JD Wetherspoons plc an employment tribunal held that a pub manager was fairly dismissed for gross misconduct after she made inappropriate comments on Facebook about two of her customers, who had verbally abused and threatened her. The conversation on Facebook took place while the employee was at work and did not reflect her upset or anger at the customers but appeared to be a joke between friends. Unfortunately for her, a wider audience was able to view her Facebook page, including relatives of the customers in question. The employee's behaviour was found to be in breach of the employer's mail and internet policy which specifically referred to use of media such as Facebook while at work.
The employee maintained that she should be spared dismissal as she had thought that her privacy settings meant only work and school friends could view her communications. Unfortunately this was not the case. After the involvement of employment solicitors and a subsequent disciplinary hearing, the employer found that writing inappropriate comments on Facebook about customers breached the employer's policy and amounted to gross misconduct. The employee's conduct had lowered the reputation of the employer and resulted in a fundamental breakdown of trust and confidence.
The employment tribunal found that the employee could not assert her right to freedom of expression and that the action taken by the employer was justified in view of the risk of damage to its reputation.
The fact that the employee was using Facebook whilst in work was clearly relevant to the case; however, that is not to say that had she engaged in a similar conversation outside work, the employer would not have taken it seriously or indeed that the employee would have avoided dismissal. Conversations on Facebook outside work about an employer can be just as damaging.
For employers, it is important to introduce guidelines and a proper drafted policy governing the use of social media. Businesses should have clear and properly drafted policies in place to manage the use of new technology. These should be clearly set out and readily available to staff. That way, if employees flout the rules, then the sanction, be it a warning or dismissal, will be more capable of justification.
The lesson for employees is not to use Facebook or similar media as a way of venting frustration about work; comments on a social networking site are not necessarily immune from disciplinary sanction.