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Employees beware – careless Twitter talk can cost your job

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 20, 2012

Next time you want to rant about something work-related remember to take a deep breath before you post something on social media

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Social media has been lauded as a great opportunity for businesses to connect directly with their customers.

But when employees use it to make disparaging comments about their boss, colleagues or clients an opportunity becomes a liability.

Calling your employers a "bunch of *****" on Twitter to an audience of around 450,000 followers might not be an everyday occurrence, but that's exactly what landed England footballer, Ashley Cole, in trouble with the Football Association.

Cole's comment came in response to a report that questioned the player's evidence in the John Terry racism case.

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As a result Cole has been charged with misconduct. If he wasn't such a consistently efficient world-class full-back his action could have potentially ended his "employment" with the England football team on 98 caps. Cole, who was this week fined £90,000 for his misdemeanors, has become the latest in a line of high profile footballers brought to task following comments on social media.

This year Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 for bringing the game into disrepute after responding to a racially suggestive tweet about Cole. We've also seen Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong fined £6,000 after using a derogatory term about Tottenham fans, while then Liverpool winger Ryan Babel was fined £10,000 in 2011 after he was linked to a mocked-up picture of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt.

But millionaire professional footballers live in a different world – what has that got to do with employees working for firms in the South West? Well, quite a lot as many workers and businesses across the country have found to their cost, as these employment tribunal examples highlight:

Preece v JD Wetherspoon Ltd

Miss Preece was duty manager one evening of a Wetherspoon's pub when she received what an employment tribunal described as "a shocking torrent of verbal abuse and physical threats" from a couple. She asked them to leave and they were subsequently arrested for drink-driving. Miss Preece later on received further abuse from the couple's daughter who wrongly thought she had tipped off the police. At that point she made a post on Facebook that simply consisted of expletives and when others asked what the problem was she explained but without naming the customers.

When the comments were bought to the attention of her bosses at Wetherspoon by the couple's daughter, the firm dismissed her. The dismissal was held to be fair for the simple reason that the pub chain's policy expressly forbade staff to make disparaging comments about customers on the internet.

Crisp v Apple Retail (UK) Ltd

Mr Crisp was an employee of Apple who had undergone considerable social media training and was familiar with the company's policies that forbade discussing Apple products. Nevertheless he used Facebook to complain about the performance of his "Jesus phone", several Apple Apps and his work in general.

He was dismissed as a result and it was held that the dismissal was fair. The employment tribunal put considerable emphasis on how frequently he had been informed that Apple took these matters very seriously and were concerned about possible damage to the brand image through errant use of social media. But it should be stressed that simply having a policy that forbids something is not the be-all-and-end-all.

A tribunal needs to be satisfied that a dismissal is fair in the circumstances and express policies are not always decisive in making that determination.

Whitham v Club 24 Ltd

"I think I work in a nursery and I do not mean working with plants" were the words that got Mrs Whitham dismissed. Her employer had an express policy which banned discussing work on Facebook but despite that the words used were simply too tame to warrant a dismissal. The employment tribunal observed that lesser sanctions, like written warnings, exist for a reason and would have been appropriate in that instance.

While cases involving social media and employment tribunals have been rare they are becoming more frequent as access to social media at work and through smartphones increases, and as commenting online becomes second nature.

How many times have you or one of your friends made a comment online about something work-related just to let off some steam?

While people think it may be the equivalent of having a moan to a husband and wife at home or to friends down the pub the fact is these comments are in the public domain and they can come back to bite as Miss Preece, Mr Crisp and Mrs Whitham found out.

We're seeing more and more businesses adding social media policies to employment contracts, so next time you want to rant about something work-related remember to take a deep breath before you post.

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