The demotion of a housing employee over comments he made on Facebook highlights the grey area between employees’ public and private lives. Here, Lydia Stockdale finds out how others can avoid getting themselves into trouble
It’s a case that throws up numerous moral questions - Adrian Smith, a Trafford Housing Trust employee and devout Christian, was demoted after colleagues spotted he had written that plans to allow gay marriages in church were ‘an equality too far’ on his personal Facebook page, which identifed him as a THT employee. He’s now taking the 9,000-home landlord to court arguing that his contract and his human rights have been breached.
Putting aside the debate around whether the housing association was right or wrong to demote Mr Smith from housing manager to money support officer, this case highlights the impact Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook can have in the workplace.
As Graham Shaw, an employment specialist at TLT Solictors, points out, ‘the reason THT feels it is in a good position is it updated its code of conduct in 2010 to include advice to employees on what they should and shouldn’t do on social media’.
A full disciplinary investigation found Mr Smith had breached this organisation-wide set of policies, and previous employment tribunals in which employees have claimed unfair dismissal have shown that employers’ decisions have been deemed reasonable if they have clearly outlined what is acceptable behaviour.
Where, though, can employers draw the line? First, organisations and their staff need to acknowledge that the ‘age-old barrier between private and public life’ has broken down, points out James Davies, head of employment at law firm Lewis Silkin.
Social landlords, like all other organisations, have an interest in ensuring their employees do not act in a way that damages their reputation, their clients’ reputation or their own individual reputation, he adds.
There are online comments that are self-evidently offensive, but there are others that only some people would consider inappropriate and damaging. If certain subjects are off-limits for a housing provider, it is up to that organisation to spell this out to staff. They must also ensure employees realise this applies when they are using sites including Facebook and Twitter at home as well as at work.
Once an organisation has decided the parameters it wants to set in its code of conduct relating to social media, it must communicate it to employees and not just wait for it to be discovered on the company intranet.
‘The basic principle of employment law is that employees need to be treated fairly so need to know what they can and can’t do,’ says Mr Shaw, who suggests sending an email detailing the policy to everyone at work, and asking them to acknowledge they have read it. This means staff members will not be able to turn around and say they have not read the policy at an employment tribunal.
He also suggests making the social networking policy part of the organisation’s code of conduct and reminding all employees on an annual basis.
Organisations looking for guidance on how to draw up a social networking policy could look at the fact sheets that have been drawn up by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, available on its website, Mr Shaw suggests.
For their part, employees should not see chatting on Facebook and Twitter as the equivalent of a conversations with mates at the pub, states Mr Davies - it’s not the same - there’s a written record.
You need to be particularly careful if your profile includes details of where you work. However, be aware that even if you don’t explicitly state who your employer is on your personal Facebook or Twitter page, a quick internet search could quickly identify who you work for, says Mr Davies.
If you write something that could potentially bring your company into disrepute or ‘flies in the face of its core values’, it could have serious consequences, explains Rebecca McGuirk, a partner in law firm Trowers & Hamlins’ employment department. If you’re relatively senior, you need to be especially cautious. ‘I would generally say that the more senior the person is, the more accountable they are,’ she adds. And the rules will vary from organisation to organisation.
‘When it comes to misconduct on social media - like any other form of misconduct, different organisations have different thresholds,’ says Ms McGuirk. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all policy.’
The Trafford Housing Trust case has highlighted just how much the internet has blurred the boundaries between individuals’ work lives and their private lives.
Now it is up to organisations to maintain a sense of proportion when considering whether employees online comments are potentially damaging, and for employees to realise that when they’re having a conversation online, it’s not just their intended recipient who is watching.
Why we did it
Arm’s-length management organisation Wolverhampton Homes published its social media policy in May last year.
‘There was a risk to staff and also to the business if we were not clear enough about what was acceptable,’ says Kate Hughes, its head of communications, explaining why the ALMO decided to draw up a policy.
‘We want staff to have real online conversations - that’s when you get the most out of social media, but the policy makes them stop and think,’ she says.
Wolverhampton Homes regularly reminds employees about the policy through its staff e-bulletin. To date, nobody has been disciplined for not adhering to the policy.