Dealing with the inappropriate use of social media by employees is a common activity for modern employers. Two recent examples involving police officers demonstrate how employees can get into trouble.

While Facebook is a common cause of problems, with employees using it to continue spats with colleagues or air grievances about their employer, in two recent cases it was Twitter which was involved.

Twitter storm

The lessons may be obvious but it seems even senior employees, who should know better, are susceptible to the perils of social media.

It started innocently enough, Northern Ireland's Chief Constable, George Hamilton, took to Twitter late on a Saturday night to post an appeal for new recruits.

One Twitter user, apparently a police officer who suffers from depression, responded that police were expected to be social workers, paramedics and child minders as well. Mr Hamilton replied: 'I know - complex & challenging but we are here to serve so let's get on with it rather than wallowing in self-pity!' When the man denied he was wallowing in self-pity, Mr Hamilton replied: 'well you're allowed to leave & seek another job - nobody is asking you to stay. Dry your eyes, do the job or move on!'

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents more than 10,000 PSNI officers, demanded an apology for what they described as 'offensive comments' from Mr Hamilton.
Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Federation, said: 'The pressures our officers endure are nothing short of monstrous. The Chief Constable knows the extent of the problem - we have highlighted it often enough - which makes his remarks all the more bewildering.'

In a video statement posted on Twitter later on Sunday afternoon, Mr Hamilton said: 'Last night's frank Twitter conversation was about what the police actually do. However, such important issues are not best dealt with in the 140 characters of a tweet. I've clearly caused some offence from what I said and, for that, I apologise. ....'

Whilst Mr Hamilton's comments may have not have amounted to gross misconduct, it was far from textbook employee engagement. He was right about one thing though - Twitter is not the place for complex discussions given its character limit.

Inappropriate comments

The second case involved another policeman, Pc Graham Wise, who tweeted abuse about celebrities and, as a result, was summarily dismissed by Cleveland Police after being found guilty of gross misconduct.

In various tweets, he called former EastEnders Daniella Westbrook a 'washed up cokehead with one nostril', commented unfavourably on the tennis player Nick Kyrgios and called boxer Anthony Joshua's opponent Dillian Whyte, among other things, 'a deluded idiot'.

The officer had previously worked in Stockton, Teesside, and had policed the estate where the Channel 4 show Benefits Street was filmed. He tweeted to the Gazette newspaper saying 'bulldoze it, preferably with the majority of people still inside it'.

Pc Wise faced numerous difficulties in his disciplinary hearing:

  1. although he thought only his 170 followers, made up of family and friends, could see his tweets, he used hashtags so they were accessible by the public;
  2. some of the tweets made it clear he was a serving officer, including one which referred to him working at the force HQ; and
  3. when he was asked by the disciplinary panel if he was at HQ when he sent the tweets, Pc Wise replied: 'I will have either been in the canteen or the kitchen next door.'

So although he wasn't on duty when he sent the tweets, the disciplinary panel found that Pc Wise's conduct fell below standards of professional behaviour, respect and courtesy.

Tips for employers

  • An inappropriate response to an employee's social media activity could result in legal liability for unfair dismissal so avoid knee jerk reactions and ensure any suspected misdemeanours are properly investigated just as any other disciplinary matter would be.
  • It is not inevitable that an employee's comments on social media will negatively impact on the employer's reputation or brand. Factors which should be considered include: what has been said, who has or is likely to read the post, has anyone complained, is it clear from the post that the individual is an employee of the organisation, was the post made during working hours, was the post made on a personal account or a work account?
  • Employees need to understand what is and is not acceptable from the employer's point of view. A comprehensive social media policy which is properly implemented and explained to staff is a must.
  • Younger employees who have grown up with social media may have a different attitude and experience to those older employees who have not. It is down to the employer to educate staff about what is acceptable professionally. This will need to be done through training and management.
  • It may also be helpful to refer to social media in other policies such as the equality and diversity policy.
  • Some employers may consider it appropriate to include express provisions in contracts of employment or to specifically refer to social media abuse as a potential act of gross misconduct in disciplinary procedures.
  • The trouble with social media is that it blurs the line between the public and the private, the informality of the medium can lull people into saying things they would not do in a face to face professional situation. It may therefore be necessary to repeatedly remind employees where the boundaries are, from the employer's perspective.