Sports Stars’ Text And Twitter Woes ‘A Warning Sign To Businesses On Social Media’

Specialist Calls For Employers To Put Policies In Place

17.08.2012

Two high-profile stories involving sports stars and their use of social media and text messaging have emphasised how important it is for employers to ensure their staff are given clear guidance when it comes to such platforms, according to an employment law specialist.

The issue of how people make use of electronic communications has taken centre-stage in the sporting world once again, with cricket star Kevin Pietersen apologising over allegedly sending text messages to members of the South African cricket team which criticised the England set-up and captain Andrew Strauss.

He was subsequently dropped from England’s third test squad to face South Africa following the news, while further talks are set to be held between him and representatives from the England and Wales Cricket Board over the claims.

In football, the FA has confirmed that Rio Ferdinand has been fined £45,000 in relation to a charge of improper conduct regarding a comment on Twitter. The case relates to references that the star made on his Twitter account in criticism of Chelsea full-back Ashley Cole, with an Independent Regulatory Commission ruling that the comment brought the game into disrepute

Chris Piggott, a Partner and specialist in employment law at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office, said that such cases are further examples of why employers need to act quickly if they haven’t yet put in place policies to provide guidance on what is expected of employees when it comes to these kinds of communication.

He explained: “These two cases are just the latest in a string of instances when social media and the use of electronic communications have been in the headlines following concerns over their misuse.

“Twitter and social media in general have become a massive phenomenon offering people the chance to air their views on a range of topics to a potentially huge audience. However, with this kind of power comes great responsibility, as saying the wrong thing could have significant implications.

“We are seeing a growing number of enquiries related to how employers can approach social media, in particular, in a manner which prevents them from facing potential claims in relation to unfair dismissal and other issues.

“It is absolutely vital that employers and other industry organisations provide guidance and clear policies on the use of such platforms which will give workers and their representatives a comprehensive understanding of what they can and cannot say via electronic communications.

Chris added that such policies and guidance should consider a number of issues in order to provide a full picture of how the misuse of such communications is dealt with.

“Employers should look to fully highlight how seriously any abuse of platforms is viewed so that workers understand that if they overstep the mark there could be significant consequences,” he outlined.

“It would also be worth encouraging staff or representatives who have problems which are troubling them to use official avenues, such as grievance procedures, rather than choosing to air such problems publicly in a way which could have a major reputational impact.

“Finally, an absolute must is that every complaint or matter which arises as a result of the use of social media or electronic communication should be dealt with in a consistent manner. Acting leniently in one case then more strictly in another can only leave employers open to potential legal action.

“This issue is a complicated one to handle, so we would urge any employers looking into this to seek legal advice to see how they can put together a policy that suits their needs.”