Don't just take the plunge on Twitter

Incorrect use of social media can have serious repercussions for individuals or businesses, writes Marianne McJannett

The unravelling of Ryan Lochtes claim that he had been robbed played out on social media. Picture: AFP/Getty
The unravelling of Ryan Lochtes claim that he had been robbed played out on social media. Picture: AFP/Getty

Olympic gold-winning swimmer Ryan Lochte found himself in a hot water after his mother tweeted that he had been robbed at gunpoint in Rio.

A series of revelations unfolded, including the fact the story was untrue and the swimmer had lied to cover up drunken behaviour. It resulted in Mr Lochte being dropped by a number of sponsors and being condemned by Team USA.

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All of this was played out on Twitter, and highlights the dangers of firing off 140 characters into the cyber ether.

Social media is a marvellous tool: it equips people with knowledge, gives individuals a voice and allows businesses to market themselves to a wider audience. However, there are serious repercussions if it is not used correctly. It is important for employers and employees to remember comments posted online may be traceable and there could be potential impact on their business if they tweet or comment on something which clients or customers find offensive. A recent series of tweets by a solicitor in England discussing a court victory led to a serious loss of business. Derogatory or offensive comments made by an employee could have an adverse impact on organisations and damage careers.

Before allowing employees to blog or tweet, employers must put in place an appropriate social media and internet use policy, highlight this policy to employees and ensure they adhere this policy during their activity online. In addition, employers should make sure any social media policy ties in with the organisation’s disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Employees should remember that any message posted online reflects on them personally and their employer too, if it can be connected in any way. A good rule of thumb for employees is – if you wouldn’t say it in the workplace; it’s best not to say it online!

Although you might have had a bad day at the office, be careful how you vocalise this online. Employees have to be aware of their employer’s social media policy and that any derogatory or defamatory comment, or one that is breach of confidentiality, could lead to disciplinary or dismissal.

Employee use of social media is on the increase and so too are the number of cases going to Employment Tribunals on this area. Employees with more than two years’ service have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. Where the dismissal reason is conduct, an employer must establish that at the time of dismissal it believed the employee to be guilty of the misconduct, that it had reasonable grounds for doing so and that it had carried out a reasonable investigation.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in the case of British Waterways Board v Smith held that it was fair for an employer to dismiss an employee for derogatory comments on Facebook.

The employee had written “on standby tonight so only going to get half p*ssed lol” among other things and the EAT found that dismissal for these comments was fair.

Employees often argue their Facebook or Twitter page is private and therefore would not have been seen by anyone other than the people they are “friends” with or who follow them.

However, this might not be a strong enough defence to allegations about comments made, particularly if the friends and followers are colleagues and former colleagues. Don’t think that these people won’t raise issue with the fact that you have made a comment about your employer just because you’re connected to them online.

If an employer decides not to discipline an employee or gives a disciplinary sanction short of dismissal, an employee may still be subject to questions from the professional body of which they are members.

While the benefits of social media are far-reaching and changing the way in which organisations do business, it is important to be mindful of the fact that those 140 characters or heat of the moment post could come back to haunt you and land you in hot water (with no gold medal to show for it!)

• Marianne McJannett is an employment lawyer with TC Young, a member of the United Employment Lawyers network.