Personal Posts, Professional Problems

25 August 2015

Social media can cause a range of problems in the workplace when employees:

  • post comments about their colleagues or employer;

  • use social media during work hours; or

  • have “unprofessional actions” posted (knowingly or unknowingly) to social media.

In Adams v Wellington Free Ambulance Service Inc. Ms Adams was justifiably dismissed for abusive comments to a co-worker followed up by abuse through Facebook after work. Ms Adams argued that the Facebook exchange occurred outside of work and therefore was of no concern to the employer. The Authority found employers are entitled, and often obliged, to investigate problems between co-workers even if the problem occurs outside of work and especially if the problem arises in the workplace. Therefore the employer was justified in relying on the Facebook messages.

In Dickinson v Chief Executive Ministry of Social Development and Hohaia v New Zealand Post Limited employees were justifiably dismissed due to a break down in the trust and confidence the employer held in them as a result of social media activity. Dickinson posted derogatory remarks about public servants and described herself as a “very expensive paperweight” and “highly competent in the art of time wastage, blame shifting and stationary [sic] theft”. Hohaia operated a publically accessible Facebook page that brought New Zealand Post into disrepute and damaged the reputation of the business.

Employees can sometimes be victims of social media themselves in a way which is damaging to the employer – and potentially lead to a dismissal. Everyone saw videos or read reports of the amorous couple at a Christchurch insurance broker who inadvertently had their extramarital affair broadcast to the world.

Employees’ online activities can be taken into account in disciplinary action, even if the activities occurred outside of work. Employees would do well to remember grandma’s advice that “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” – or to put it in the modern employment context “if you wouldn’t say it in front of your boss, don’t publish it to the world in a status update!”

These social media issues can also have a serious effect on an employer’s reputation with its customers and the wider public. To avoid this we recommend searching potential employees’ social media profiles as part of the recruitment process to ensure you are not taking on an unnecessary risk. Every workplace should have a robust social media policy in place. You may also want to consider restricting employees from linking their Facebook profiles to their employment to help them keep their professional and private lives separate.

Sam Hood is a Partner in the Employment team at Norris Ward McKinnon. Email Sam at [email protected]

Would you like more information about this and other employment law topics? Norris Ward McKinnon is holding a series of free briefcase seminars to keep you updated. Please email [email protected] for more information if you are interested.

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