Online blogs and social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn have become an essential part of many people’s personal lives. However, unlike many “off-duty” activities, the public nature of internet communications makes employers particularly vulnerable to harm from employees’ inappropriate online behaviour. Many employers have become understandably concerned about employees making negative or disparaging comments about them, or that the online activities of their employees may threaten to affect their reputation or business interests.
For example, in a recent case,1 an employer terminated an employee after it discovered that his blog contained racist and offensive comments glorifying Nazi Germany. In the resulting grievance, the arbitrator found that there was a connection between the blog and the individual’s employment, because he had mentioned the employer and posted photos of himself at work. However, as the blog postings were not directed at his employer or co-workers, and as the employee had apologized and removed the hateful comments, a suspension was substituted for termination. In another case,2 an arbitrator upheld the discharge of a government employee who had made negative comments about her employer and co-workers, including posting confidential information and referring to her co-workers as “aliens” and her workplace as a “lunatic asylum.”
While off-duty online conduct may justify discipline in certain circumstances, it is always preferable to have policies that directly address social networking and blogs. In developing such policies, employers should consider including provisions that:
- Remind employees that online communications can be read by anyone (including their employer and co-workers);
- Reiterate the employee’s duty of loyalty to the employer, and any applicable policies concerning harassment, intellectual property, IT/computer use, conflicts of interest and privacy;
- Prohibit employees from:
- Using company-owned resources for social networking or blog activities while at work;
- Disclosing any confidential information, including information relating to other employees or customers;
- Posting material that may violate the privacy rights of other employees, including photographs or videos taken at work or company social events;
- Publishing any negative comments about the employer or other employees, or any comments that may negatively affect the employer’s reputation;
- Advise employees that if they refer to any aspect of a company's business, they must clearly identify themselves as an employee of the company, and include a disclaimer that the views are their own and not the employer’s; and
- Expressly warn employees that any breach of the policy may result in discipline up to and including termination.
Employers should also advise employees that if they have any questions concerning the appropriate use of social networking or blogs with respect to their employment, they should raise these with their supervisor or manager.
As always, it is important to have policies that expressly outline the employer's expectations concerning these issues, as otherwise, an employee can always claim that he or she did not understand that off-duty online activities were related to his or her employment. Given the extraordinary power of online tools, and the significant – and immediate – damage to an employer's reputation that inappropriate postings may cause, it is essential that employers revisit their existing IT and computer use policies, and consider including these provisions.