It has been difficult over recent weeks to escape the publicity surrounding barrister, Charlotte Proudman and a Linked-In exchange on 9 July 2015.  Ms Proudman, 27, took offence at references to her profile photograph made by a Mr Carter-Silk, 57, to whom she sent an invitation. His apology was not acceptable to her and she chose to publicise the matter on different social media.  On the positive side, her public profile as a barrister, interested in equality and individual rights has been enhanced.  She has been in demand for interviews and comments for news articles ever since.  She has justified her position, citing examples of how she has suffered sexism ever since she was a teen law student.  On the less positive side she has been accused of hypocrisy and has apparently also been the victim of on-line trolls and apparently even death threats.

It is not difficult to work-out why this is newsworthy.  The debate has re-ignited the battle of the sexes debate in a profession which (for some reason) continues to fascinate the public in general.  The reality of what happens in the legal profession is rather more mundane and similar considerations apply to the exchange itself.  The message from Mr Carter-Silk demonstrates that (at least when he does his own typing) he either cannot spell or construct a grammatical sentence. Returning to Ms Proudman, she continues to insist that the public interest in exposing sexism outweighed Mr Carter-Silk’s right to privacy.  As a barrister apparently specialising in human rights, Ms Proudman ought to know that in this context, these are not legal rights at all.  All in all, none of this can be regarded as a good advertisement for standards within the profession.

It is difficult to disagree with Ms Proudman’s view however that LinkedIn is for business purposes. Most people would accept that this particular social media platform is the virtual equivalent to a professional networking lunch.  Anything witty, let alone offensive would appear out of place. As the name suggests, LinkedIn is where you would expect introductions of a professional nature rather than get yourself a date.  This is to be contrasted with for example, Facebook.  Much of its content is the virtual equivalent of your third drink in the local pub on a Friday night. Context is important and gender-equality aside, the exchange (once again) demonstrates the evidence of on-line etiquette.

Likewise and referring to Mr Carter-Silk, he has apologised for what must involve a degree of mis-judgment on his part.  Any middle-aged man who feels it necessary to start any message with “I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect… probably should not sent it at all.  As another middle-aged Partner in a law firm, it is not difficult to see a problem around the corner when you need to excuse yourself before you even finish typing. 

This exchange would not be actionable. Increasingly however, other are. Organisations need to understand that they are liable for the behaviour of their managers and other employees.  Employers need to respond to the explosion in social media with some care.  As this exchange demonstrates, the virtual world of professional networking can be used for personal reasons as well as business development and recruitment.  Without controls, it is not difficult to see how organisations can be liable for defamation as well as unlawful discrimination.

Employers such as Wetherspoons and Argos have found themselves in The Law Reports recently for dismissing employees for using social media but this type of response fails to deal with the reputational damage.  Organisations now invest heavily in social media but would be wise to mirror this with internal controls.  It is quite possible to restrict activity and ensure that any database on social media is and remains an asset of the employer.  An understanding of how it works can be used to restrict publication and use but the most important measure is a policy, providing clear rules as to what is acceptable and drawing a distinction between professional and personal use.

Personally, I do not recognise the view of my own profession as portrayed in the media.  Increasingly however, our firm advises on disputes where social media is influential in claims made against employers.