Twitter has claimed some high-profile scalps over the last few years, from employees being rude about their bosses, to celebrities posting cringe-worthy opinions which land them in all sorts of hot water.
And yet it continues to happen with astonishing regularity. Most recently, Paris Brown, Britain's first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, resigned following a media storm about alleged racist and homophobic comments posted on Twitter. In the same week, cricketer John Mooney was forced to apologise after he tweeted that he hoped Margaret Thatcher suffered a 'slow and painful' death.
Paris is 17 years old and was employed to carry out the PCC role as a role model for today's youth. Unfortunately for her, the media backlash against her tweets forced her employer to explain its stance on recruiting her, with Paris eventually resigning under the pressure.
This incident should serve as a warning to both employees and job seekers of the potential dangers of social media where proper caution (or some might argue, common sense) is not applied. Social media has narrowed the divide between employees' working lives and their private lives. What an employee does in their private life can have an effect on their recruitment, employment and promotion prospects. Every news story that appears only strengthens the belief that some people (more than you would think) have not yet grasped the reality that what is posted online can potentially be read by the general population, and can have an impact on their working lives years after the comments have been posted.
If Paris Brown's former employer had viewed her Twitter account prior to offering her a job, the outcome may have been very different. However, employers should also take a balanced approach. If an employee posted an inappropriate comment or picture of themselves five years ago, should this be used against them in future employment decisions?
Employers are often extremely concerned about the impact of comments made on social media. Key concerns are the detrimental impact on their business, reputation and relationships with key customers. Employers may wish to take disciplinary action against employees, including dismissal, depending on the seriousness of the comments. Employers don't always get their approach right and should avoid a "knee jerk" reaction.
A recent example of this is the case of Smith v Trafford Housing Trust where an employee, employed by the Housing Trust, posted comments on his Facebook page making it clear he was against gay marriage. The Housing Trust disciplined Mr Smith because it considered the comments could have had the potential to cause offence and could have damaged the reputation of the Housing Trust. The High Court found that the employee had not breached his contract of employment in expressing his views and they did not bring the Housing Trust into disrepute. This case serves as a warning to employers in taking action without considering the whether there is a real risk of reputational damage to the employer - or whether the employer can prove that to be the case.
Although an employer may not agree with a comment, or feels aggrieved at its content, it should consider whether there could actually be any damage to its reputation. Does the employee's page make any reference to the employer? Would someone reading the comment know the employee worked for that employer? How big is the potential readership of the comment? Likewise, if the concern relates to jeopardising a relationship with a key customer, has a view been taken from the customer or has the customer expressed his discontent?
To protect an employer from ending up as the next news story, employers should make sure that they have a clear, comprehensive, social media policy in place. The social media policy should be tailored to reflect their own business, which may mean that they allow employees to use social media in a work capacity. The policy should make it clear to employees what behaviour (both at work and outside of work) the employer considers inappropriate.
When rolling out any policy employers should also consider providing training to employees on the policy. This will strengthen employers' positions that employees knew exactly what was expected of them.
As this area of communication continues to develop we will continue to see news stories where you can't help but wonder how someone could have been so naive'? Yet, employers must also make sure that they don't end up on the wrong end of a tribunal decision (or the media) by taking a decision that could ultimately be considered unreasonable or disproportionate.