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Employment Law Update

Myth busting: Employees can say what they like about the company and their boss on social media because of freedom of speech

Employment laws generate a lot of comment. Hardly a day goes by without the media reporting scare stories about the employment rights of UK employees, which are depicted as being anti-competitive, unduly restrictive and in many cases overly generous.

We are exposing some of the most common employment law myths and explaining the reality behind them. We are not pretending that employment law is easy – it isn’t, but generally it should not be difficult to get the basics right.

This month we look at the problems created by social media.


Employees can say what they like about the company and their boss on social media because of freedom of speech


Employees are entitled to a private life and to hold opinions about their employer and their boss, but they are not entitled to publicise them on social media! Free speech is not an absolute right that “trumps” their obligations to your business and staff.

We recommend that you take the following steps to prevent your staff from damaging your reputation via social media.

1 Develop a social media policy

You can discipline and in serious cases dismiss staff for posting negative comments or images about your business. It is easier and safer to do so if you have a policy which sets out your expectations of staff when it comes to social media, and warns them of the consequences of not following the policy.

When drawing up the policy consider the following questions:-

  • What damage could staff do on social media?
  • What (if anything) would you be comfortable with staff sharing on Facebook or other social media sights?
  • Do you want an absolute ban on staff befriending customers on Facebook, or referring to the work they do?
  • Is such a ban realistic?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ but a middle ground might be to require employees who do identify you as their employer (or who are online ‘friends’ with customers who know you to be their employer) to maintain professional standards in their postings.

Staff should be reminded that they must not spread workplace gossip or post confidential information about the business itself or its customers, and that comments about colleagues must respect your policies – for example on bullying and harassment

If you consider that some online behaviour is so serious, it will constitute gross misconduct, say so in the policy (and in your disciplinary policy also) and give examples of what types of behaviour could lead to dismissal.

It is important that your staff understand that these restrictions are not limited to comments they make during working hours or using company equipment, but apply equally to information posted using their own devices in their own time. This is something that employees often misunderstand.

Without a social media policy, employers will find it more difficult to discipline staff for posting inappropriate comments. To start with you will need to find out how much damage or potential damage has been caused to your business or its reputation – something you may prefer not to do, as it runs the risk of highlighting to clients something that they may not be even aware of. Even if you can show that your clients might have read or seen the message, you should not take a disproportionate view of the damage that has, or could have been caused.

2 Train your employees

It is not enough to write a policy. You must make sure that your employees understand the policy and particularly, what is expected of them. Give all members of staff copies of company policies or tell them how to access these and provide relevant training. Some employers do this by way of a compulsory online training or reading programme, the results of which are stored, so that they have evidence that staff have read the policies.

3 Make sure your managers set the standard

It is no good having a policy unless it is followed by everyone within the organisation, from the top down. There should be no exceptions and managers should lead by example.

4 Prevent harassment and bullying via social media

You may also need to update your equal opportunities/harassment and bullying policies to include cyber bullying. You should ensure that your employees understand that they should not post discriminatory comments about other members of staff, or customers on social networks – even on forums that they consider to be private as this may expose you to discrimination claims.

5 Social media should not be used to voice workplace disputes

Remind employees that they should not to use social networks to raise grievances. Work related problems should be dealt with under the organisation’s grievance procedures.

6 Take appropriate action against employees

Act quickly once you become aware of issues. If you believe that an employee has posted inappropriate, damaging or discriminatory remarks online, you should follow your disciplinary procedure and impose a suitable sanction. In most cases a written or final warning should be sufficient for a first offence. Make sure that the employee understands what will happen if they post any further inappropriate comments (ie they will receive a final written warning or may be dismissed). This will send out a message to your staff that you do treat breaches seriously and will, over time, encourage staff to think carefully before firing off random and ill-considered comments.

Published: 3 April 2017

Employment Law Update - April 2017

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