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When the personal and the professional collide online it can lead to trouble at work, but you don't need to worry about risking your job if you take care with what you post on social media.
It’s common nowadays to hear stories about people losing their jobs over comments they made online, but it’s hard to know exactly how to avoid this risk. The law is often slow to adapt to changes in the way the world works, so the rules regarding discipline and dismissals over personal social media postings are still something of a grey area.
Your employer may have a social media policy covering the use of these sites at work, if it is allowed at all, but not all such policies cover social media use outside of work, so this might not be of much help.
Even if you use privacy settings to ensure that only your friends can see your posts, this may not be sufficient defence if something you say online does end up more widely circulated. The only guaranteed way to keep yourself safe is to avoid putting anything online that your employer might disapprove of.
You don’t need to allow your job to rule every aspect of your life, but here are some things it’s best not to post on social media if you’d prefer to avoid problems in the workplace.
This is the most obvious thing to avoid if you don’t want to risk disciplinary action. While it is fairly common practice to complain to your friends after a difficult day at work, remember that posting negative things about your job online could land you in a lot of trouble, particularly as you can never quite be sure who will see them.
Try to avoid making disapproving statements on social media about any of the following.
Few employers would take kindly to their workers publicly disparaging the company. Insults from an employee about the company as a whole, its products, or its practices will likely be seen as bringing the business into disrepute, and could get you disciplined or dismissed. Your employer could even take action against you for defamation if your statements were particularly harsh.
Of course, it may be that your complaints are valid, but social media is rarely, if ever, the right place to address them. For advice on dealing with workplace issues, see our page about problems at work.
Personal insults relating to the people you work with can get you in trouble for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the obvious risk that the target of your insults, or someone who knows them, will see your comments. This could land you in trouble for harassment or bullying.
Even if the person you insulted never hears about it, if your employer finds out that you are badmouthing colleagues then they may be obliged to investigate this. They might take action out of concern that this could damage relationships between employees, or they could even consider your remarks to be discriminatory, depending on what exactly was said.
You might think that it’s safe to complain about a difficult customer or an annoying contractor since they don’t actually work for your company, but from your employer’s point of view this has the potential to bring the company into disrepute or cause damage to important business relationships.
Even people who have nothing to do with the situation might see your comments as being unprofessional and possibly even alert your employer. It’s easier to do this than you might think; a few angry messages directed at your company’s Twitter or Facebook account could lead to an investigation into your comments.
Another reason to be careful when posting about your job on social media, even if it’s positive coverage, is the potential for breaching confidentiality. Your workplace will likely have a policy in place to ensure that trade secrets stay under wraps, as well as being legally required to follow data protection rules, and discussing even seemingly innocuous details of your job online could inadvertently put you in breach of these.
A few examples of issues that might amount to a breach of confidentiality if discussed online include:
Your employer won’t be pleased if you give away secrets to competitors or put them in breach of data protection regulations, so take care with what you mention on social media.
Companies rarely react well to workers who commit crimes while under their employ, but if you post carelessly on social media you could easily find yourself breaching the law. There are a few criminal offences which are surprisingly common online, such as the following.
Making untrue statements which harm someone’s reputation is known as defamation. Remember that social media can potentially be seen by anyone, so spreading rumours about celebrities or big companies, even if you heard them from someone else, can get you into serious legal trouble.
Our section on defamation has more information available.
Sending threatening or abusive messages to someone online can count as harassment and lead to prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act. This legislation prohibits online communications which are threatening, offensive or indecent if intended to cause distress to the recipient.
Furthermore, if abuse or threatening behaviour is motivated by any of the target’s ‘protected characteristics’, such as their race, gender or religious belief, this can count as hate crime.
Even if it doesn’t amount to criminal behaviour, you might still find yourself getting in trouble with your employer if you put offensive content online. Even if you are just making off-colour jokes or messing around, your employer may feel that you are bringing the company into disrepute if the account you use for posting this content is too closely tied to your job, as other people may see your comments as representing the view of the company.
If you tend to post things online which you would prefer your employer not to see, it’s best not to connect social media accounts to your job or even your real identity where possible. While it’s harder to do on places like Facebook, you don’t have to use your real name or details of your job on a site like Twitter.
Remember that careless posting on social media could also expose things your employer will consider as misconduct. There have been a number of cases where employees who claimed to be too ill to come to work have posted details online of what they were actually doing with their time off, leading to swift dismissal. Suffice to say that if you are engaging in activity that would get you in trouble with your employer, you shouldn’t broadcast the fact online.