Employees can face consequences for their behaviour on social media, even if the account is private. McDonald Murholme senior associate Trent Hancock discusses the reputational harm that a social media post may cause an employer.
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The perils of social media for employees
An employee’s behaviour outside work can also affect their career in a profound way as a resident doctor found out in the United States after she was caught on camera attacking an Uber driver.
Just ask the salon employee in the United States, who posted on Facebook about a spoilt dinner while someone had a heart attack, and was reportedly let go from her job. Closer to home, Sydney hotel worker Michael Nolan was sacked after making a comment on the Facebook page of Fairfax Media columnist Clementine Ford.
So is an employee’s private life no longer private?
“Unfortunately, in this world, the old adage of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas is no longer true,” says Steve Shepherd, employment market analyst at HR firm Randstad.
He says organisations see their employees as an extension of their values. “So when you put out on a private Facebook page that you’re an employee of that organisation, they’re looking at protecting their image.
“It’s no longer private. If you make that distinction that I’m an employee of whoever it is, what you put out there then by association is an indication of the values and culture of that organisation.”
Is there an evolving etiquette regarding what we say and do outside the workplace? Are the lines getting blurred and impacting our jobs?
Shepherd says you have to recognise that what you’re doing is probably going to be captured on a phone camera by someone.
He says a lot of organisations still don’t have clear social media policies. “In terms of not just how you use the company’s social media assets but what the expectation is of you in terms of your own use of social media, your reflection of the organisation,” he says.
“As I said, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay there anymore. Your work life and your private life are entwined. When you do those kinds of things you can expect some consequences. And I’m not even sure that not identifying the company you work for is going to help you if somebody calls you out.”
Shepherd says, however, if a person doesn’t mention where they work on their social media profile, they are less likely to be found.
“I see quite a lot on journalists’ Twitter pages, where they’ll say, ‘The opinions are my own’. You can do those kind of things, but then again it depends I think on the level of your offence, the nature of the Internet policy that they have for their employees, and whether the organisation feels strongly enough about that to fire you.
“You get fired in Australia for gross misconduct. So to be fired you have to show that there was gross misconduct. Otherwise you might have some issues in terms of the industrial relations court whether they were unfairly terminated.”
Trent Hancock, senior associate at McDonald Murholme, an employee law firm based in Victoria, says the circumstances in which an employee can be dismissed as a result of a social media post that is deemed offensive by his or her employer are far more limited than many employers believe.
“Ordinarily the social media post must have some relevant connection to the employment and/or cause some form of reputational harm to the employer. It is not merely about whether the employer ‘likes’ the post.”
And can an employee be disciplined over a video of him or her behaving badly in public, placed online by someone else?
Elizabeth Heusler, director of Heusler Public Relations says with the uptake of social media and multimedia, communications plays a critical part at every level.
“Whereas communications was once upon a time the domain of professionals, now every amateur is welcomed into the same arena. So obviously there are going to be issues and reputational damage.”
Heusler says one small but significant part of strategy planning is to make a decision on private, public and company posts and where the lines are drawn. She says it has to be a top-to-bottom approach.
“Usually when there is a guideline, it’s easier. Clients often find it difficult to distinguish between what they would post on their platforms compared to company sites and then, on the other hand, how not to be dull and boring.
“If you are aiming to influence, be that for a new job or to demonstrate expertise in your current role, there has to be some time spent working out a strategy and a plan,” she says.
Heusler says most companies would feel there was some right, implied or otherwise, that their employees represent the values of the company.
“Does that go for outside the workplace too?
“That would be at the core of their social media strategy – and should be part of an employee’s induction. And this is becoming more commonplace.”
Randstad’s Shepherd says businesses should have a social media policy in place and clearly communicate it as well.
“You want to distribute it to everybody, make sure that they have read it and acknowledge it.”
He says it is always good for organisations to review their policies to make sure they are maintaining currency. “That’s something you do every year or every couple of years. To continue to review your policy and make sure that what you’re implementing is good policy, I think is good business practice.”
Reference: ‘The perils of social media for employees’ The Age, 9th March 2016