Our legal experts Baines Wilson discuss the risks and rewards of social media use for businesses.

I really wish they hadn’t posted that…

There has been a huge surge in Employment Tribunal claims arising from the misuse of social media. Recent examples include a Christian public sector worker who posted his concerns about gay marriage on Facebook, a B&Q employee who said on Facebook that his place of work was a joke, and a Customer Advisor who repeatedly compared his place of work to Dante’s Inferno whilst making veiled threats of violence against a colleague.

Then there was the Game employee who posted insulting comments on Twitter about a range of people from the Police to caravan drivers.

Unsurprisingly, each of the employees in the above examples was dismissed by their employer; however, when challenged through the courts, not all the dismissals were considered to be fair.

Risks v Rewards of social media

Many employees believe that what they “tweet”, “share” and “like” in the course of their private lives bears no relevance to their working life, and that their conduct out of office hours will not have an impact upon their current or future employment. Some employees are encouraged to post on social media either on behalf of a business or in a way which links their comments to the business. This brings potential rewards for the business but also carries significant risks.


Social media undoubtedly presents exciting opportunities for businesses. As well as being a great way to increase your brand image with little or no capital cost, it’s also a convenient way of communicating with clients and networking.

With Facebook having 1.39 billion users (more people than the population of China), LinkedIn recently passing the 15 million user mark and 316 million people tweeting every month, there is no denying the size, power and positive impact the use of social media can potentially have on a business.


As is often the case in business, with the potential rewards of social media comes potential risks.

Whilst it can take a long time to build up a credible social media presence, one ill-conceived tweet, blog, post or comment can bring that credibility crashing down. Damage to reputation, discrimination, breach of confidentiality and defamation rank highly among the possible problems that can arise when employees use social media irresponsibly.

It is imperative that employers set parameters for employees using social media both on behalf of the business or where they can be identified as being employed or associated with the business. A good starting point for employers is to put in place a social media policy which makes it clear what employees can say and can’t say. Cross referencing the policy to a disciplinary procedure will also explain the likely consequences if employees post what they shouldn’t on social media.

Recent Case

In British Waterways Board v Smith an employee made disparaging comments on Facebook about his managers and his workplace. He also alluded to being drunk whilst on standby. He attempted to pass the comments off as ‘banter’, insisting that he had over exaggerated his claims and that they were in fact untrue.

He was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct, despite the employer having known about many of his comments for 12 months without taking action. Mr Smith brought a claim for unfair dismissal and was successful in the Employment Tribunal, however, the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned that decision and found that the dismissal was fair, in spite of the employer knowing about the posts for some time.

Taking Action

It is important that employers make their employees aware that their conduct outside work, including what they post on social media, can result in disciplinary proceedings being taken against them, so long as it affects the employment relationship in some way.

Employers should be proactive about employee misbehaviour online, by setting ground rules initially and then taking swift action if those rules are breached. Not every poorly thought out post will lead to dismissal – in many cases an informal discussion or disciplinary action short of dismissal will remind the employee what is expected.

If any formal disciplinary action is taken, employers must make sure they follow their disciplinary procedure and the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.

If you have any queries relating to social media or disciplinary issues or if you have any other HR queries, please do not hesitate to contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.