From risqué postings on the Facebook page of a South Carolina police officer to tweets in support of the recent riots in Vancouver, anti-social behaviour has left many individuals out of work, illuminating the issue of employer rights over workers’ private lives. In other words, how can off-duty conduct impact business reputation? Canadian legal firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP has released five simple but important guidelines any employer should consider including in their company’s hiring (and firing) policies.
In the past, only certain employers with employees in high-profile roles or positions of trust, such as company spokespeople or teachers, had to be concerned with the public image of their employees. Now, the accessibility of online images and information can threaten an employer’s reputation in new and evolving ways, as the Vancouver riots illustrated. In fact, firings over postings on Facebook and Twitter have led to numerous lawsuits and complaints in both the US and Canada. A photograph or a tweet may have powerful and immediate ramifications for an employer’s business, no matter what the employee’s position is.
“The terminations arising out of the Stanley Cup riots have prompted a very important discussion for all North American employers,” says Peter Eastwood, partner in BLG’s Labour and Employment Group. “With new technology and the demands of the modern workplace, employees’ professional and private lives are becoming more intertwined, creating an increasingly grey area of when work starts and finishes. The wide-spread use of social and digital media makes employers particularly vulnerable to harm from employees’ inappropriate behaviour in their private lives.”
As businesses navigate these evolving risks and rights, BLG recommends the following five tips:
- Create and clearly communicate policies around employees’ duties and obligations and any expectations for behaviour – both within and outside the workplace. Include detailed policies concerning standards of conduct, harassment, intellectual property, IT/computer use, conflicts of interest and privacy.
- Remind employees that online communications can be read by anyone – their employer, their co-workers, and the company’s customers – and they should consider how their online activities could affect the company’s reputation.
- Outline potential problems for employees in referring to the company name or other identifying information such as photos when using social media. If employees are encouraged to communicate for professional purposes online, the employee should include a disclaimer that their views are their own and not the employer’s.
- Establish clear guidelines and policies for employee use of social media in the workplace and identify specific rules and expectations for the use of company assets such as laptops and smartphones. Negative comments made using these tools could make you liable to defamation lawsuits.
- Clearly communicate these expectations to employees and identify the consequences of breaching these policies. Include this information in your employment contracts.