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Social media and the workplace: reasonable cause for termination?

Published: March 28, 2018

Information technology created unprecedented possibilities for businesses, but it also opened up new challenges that Canadian companies are still grappling with. For example, in the era of social networks, it is borderline impossible to control what employees are talking about publically, so the role of PR departments and HR professionals is getting harder. Naturally, most employers would like to retain final say over any public references to the company, but are often unsure how to react when the a social media post created by one of the insiders goes against company interests.

While the question doesn’t have definitive answers at this time, here are some of the main aspects of this double-edged sword the companies are trying to dodge:

What to protect – corporate image or right to privacy?

Understanding exactly where company policy stops and private life starts can be a tricky question. Undeniably, workers have a right to an opinion and employers can’t prevent them from expressing their attitudes about a range of issues. However, direct mentioning of the company in negative light or open promotion of illegal activity by one of the employees can have a real impact on the financial results. Companies would like to control how they are represented in public, but are still struggling to form a coherent set of standards that would be enforced universally. This is a slippery slope, since too strict policies could open the doors for systematic privacy infringement, while too lax approach could expose businesses to unfounded accusations from anyone holding a personal grudge.

Is termination a legitimate option for social media policy offenders?

It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a company to fire its employees because of their social media activities – there had been numerous cases in Canada over the past ten years when that exactly happened. For example, in 2013 two Toronto firefighters were let go because of misogynic content of their Twitter messages, although one of them managed to be reinstated on appeal. Similarly, in 2009 Canada Post terminated an employee who engaged in a prolonged online campaign against her superiors, while other cases of this kind occurred in the private as well as public sector. While this measure is certainly within reach, it should be reserved only for the most serious offenders and even then should be preceded by a written warning.

Education instead of punitive action

For all intents and purposes, any member of an organization with a social media account is an unwitting PR representative, and should consequently be briefed about the general media policy. By involving the workers into the image-building effort and explaining why their words will be taken as a reflection of the company, employers stand to gain more than by fervently censoring any free thought. Criticism should be directed towards the appropriate instances within the company, eliminating the need to attract public attention, with practical mechanisms established to address the complaints. With a proactive attitude, it is possible to shape the narrative on the social platforms rather than fight it.

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