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To tweet or not to tweet?

06 March 2015

Social media are the communications and marketing tools of the moment.

A significant majority of people have some form of social media involvement, whether that is through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or one of the many other platforms. A perhaps unintended consequence of the increase in social media is the extent to which it crosses the line between personal and professional relationships.

Twitter is a social networking and microblogging site with over 100 million active users. Describing itself as a real time information network, users can share messages of up to 140 characters, and follow messages from selected other users. Other content, including pictures and videos, may also be linked to and viewed through the site. Tweets are public by default, but can be restricted by using the privacy settings. Twitter can be a work or personal tool, or both, and it can often be hard to determine if it more strongly relates to an individual or their work.

It is often thought that personal tweets which do not mention the tweeter’s employer are ‘safe’. They are not. The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided recently in the case Game Retail v Laws that it was fair to dismiss an employee for making offensive tweets on his personal account as his employer had received complaints from some of his followers, which included 65 of the company’s stores.

Even though employees may not name their employer on Twitter, if their actions result in their employer being brought into serious disrepute, they may face dismissal for gross misconduct, even where their profile states their views are their own.

Companies should have a clear policy setting out what the organisation considers to be acceptable regarding Twitter use. This will stand them in good stead to defend disciplinary action brought against miscreant employees.

The key to preventing inappropriate behaviour on Twitter is to educate staff as to the rights and wrongs of certain actions and the potential consequences. That, together with avoiding knee jerk reactions, is the key to justifying a decision to dismiss when tweeters are twits.

From an individual’s point of few, you can think what you like or you can say what you like. You can pretty much tweet what you like, unless you are breaking the law with your 140 characters. But a little common sense would tell you that tweeting whatever comes to mind, especially when it includes expletives, obscenities and insults (not to mention some very dubious spelling and grammar) is going to cause you an issue if that account is linked in any way to your employer.  Common sense.  Something that should be exercised alongside your social media use at all times.

Here are a few tips:

  • Privacy education – educate employees on the diminished expectation of privacy on the internet.
  • Be even-handed – apply the same level of scrutiny across the board and be consistent with discipline for comparable offences. You can’t suspend one employee for social media antics and ignore another under similar circumstances.
  • Take a stance on the extent to which you want to encourage tweeting at work. Consider whether you also want to prohibit employees from publishing any content on the internet during work hours or using company systems.
  • Avoid discussing competitors or publishing negative comments about other businesses or individuals on your twitter account, unless you’re absolutely certain that the comments you publish could not be classified as defamatory or otherwise unlawful. There have been several high profile social media libel cases in the UK.
  • Make sure any company twitter account is monitored by a senior employee and access is limited to a trusted few. Ensure that departing employees hand over log in details to any company twitter account.

Contact anyone in our employment team if you require assistance with any social media queries or need us to create or review your company’s social media policy.

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Matthew Clayton MA LLM (Cantab), CIPP/E
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