When you’ve worked hard to build and maintain a reputation for your business, the last thing you want is for it all to come crashing down because of something that one of your employees posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

But do employers really have any control over the things that their staff post or share online?

More to the point, can an employee realistically be fired for their social media use if it takes place outside of work hours and using their own, personal account?

Join us as we answer these questions and more.


“What I do in my free time…”

When it comes to social media use, there are times when the things we share — particularly if they could reflect badly on our employers if seen by members of the public — are no longer solely our own business, and could lead to serious repercussions.

In July this year, for instance, a London-based estate agent lost his job after sharing footage of himself and a friend “trying to get a selfie with” government chief medical officer Chris Whitty in St James’s Park, Westminster.

The estate agent’s post had nothing whatsoever to do with his employer, and the incident took place outside of work hours. Nevertheless, when he was identified online and his connection to the estate agency became public, his employers sought to distance themselves not just from the act, but from their employee, terminating his contract.  

Over in the US, meanwhile, a 27-year-old woman was fired from her new job as a daycare assistant after posting on Facebook that she “absolutely hated” the kind of work she did.

Unfortunately for her, her new employer got wind of the Facebook post after it sparked an enormous negative reaction online, promptly telling her “not to bother” coming in and terminating her employment.

Clearly, the line between work time and personal time becomes much more blurred when we talk about social media...

So, can I fire someone for their social media posts?

As the above examples show, under some circumstances employers do have the right to dismiss (or at least discipline) their employees for something they‘ve posted online — even if it occurred outside of work hours.

Generally speaking, however, an employer can only take action against an employee if something they’ve shared online either violates company policy or threatens to harm the business’ reputation (and is specifically referred to in their policy or handbook).

But what might a tweet or post like that look like?

Examples of things you can’t fire an employee for might include:

  • Posting on social media about being bored or disliking their job.
  • Posting on social media during work hours.*
  • Posting photos of themselves socialising late at night before an early shift.

*This could be a disciplinary matter on the grounds of time-wasting.

Things you could fire or discipline an employee for, meanwhile, include:

  • Posting negative comments about their employer or its customers.
  • Posting comments or sharing content that could reflect badly on their employer.
  • Posting as if on behalf of the company without permission.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, and employers cannot control what we say and do. But if the connection between the person posting offensive or damaging content and their employer is clear, then the employer has a right to take action.

Just bear in mind that employees can’t be fired on the spot for something they’ve posted online — a fair and documented disciplinary procedure must always be followed, and employees given the opportunity to respond and explain their actions.

They should also know in advance what’s expected of them when it comes to social media use.

Creating a social media policy

The Human Rights Act 1998 states that employees have a “right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence”. These same rights extend to social media — employers have no right to access an employee’s account or read their private posts.

Just as employees have a right to privacy, however, businesses have a right to protect their reputation. If someone with clear links to their employer publicly (including on online ‘Groups’ or ‘Pages’) posts or shares something that’s illegal or potentially harmful to their employer’s reputation, then the employer may take disciplinary action — provided that this behaviour is clearly outlined in company policy or an employee handbook.

Your staff should be made aware of the kind of online behaviour that they could get into trouble for, so it’s important that your business has a clear and fair social media policy in place.

What you include in your policy will of course depend on the nature of your business and its values. Some broad examples or clauses, however, might include:

  • Employees must not share confidential information about the company or its customers.
  • Employees must not upload photos of themselves or others wearing company uniform or badges.
  • Employees must not publicly make false or defamatory comments about the company online.

You should also remind your employees of your company’s policies regarding things like bullying, harassment and protected characteristics such as race and gender, stating that any social media posts that are at odds with these — and that can be linked in any way to the company — will be treated as a breach of policy.

Finally, employees should also be made aware of the possible consequences should these policies not be adhered to — including dismissal and disciplinary action.

This may seem draconian, but with social media now such a prominent part of our lives, it’s important that employers keep their company policies up to date and consider the possible impact that even a single tweet or post could have on their reputations.

Wrap-up

While social media has given people all over the world a way to interact with others and air their views online, it has also made it easier than ever to connect those same individuals to the groups, companies and organisations they belong to.

When staff make defamatory statements about their employer online, or share content that could be judged as offensive, it’s easy for this to reflect badly on their employer through association, severely impacting their brand.

Rather than risk having their reputation tarnished, it’s imperative that businesses have a clear social media policy in place, outlining the online behaviours that staff should refrain from, and the possible consequences of breaking policy.


Read to write your business' social media policy? Be sure to include these five key points.