Muscular Dystrophy UK severed ties with Christine Hamilton as their charity ambassador this week following a tweet that she made in which she appears to suggest that the white hood associated with the far right, extremist group the Kl Klux Klan, was comparable to the burka; clothing worn typically by Muslim women for religious reasons. There are examples that employer lawyers see regularly which involve a misjudged “joke” or comment posted online and results in dismissal or even potentially, leaving the individual on the receiving end of a claim for discrimination or harassment.
In an era where anyone can easily broadcast statements globally for anybody to view across social media platforms, you must think about the impact of what you post and share. It’s worth considering whether what you do online in a public forum could cost you your job.
So what can I say online?
It seems we are inundated with polarising views across all forms of social media, particularly political views. Expressing an opinion, therefore, seems par for the course, a way of interacting and portraying your feelings. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but there may be consequences to your actions.
Posting any content which might be perceived as malicious, abusive, defamatory, derogatory or offensive is likely to leave you in hot water with your employer. Anything that incites harm or hatred could also potentially see you facing criminal prosecution and common sense might tell you that anything which leaks confidential information is not going to be well received by your boss.
The reputation of a business can be crucial to its commercial success. How people view a company, its values and ethos can determine whether a customer or supplier wants to do business with them or use their services. They, therefore, have legitimate business interests to protect and an employee who publishes views which potentially damages their business and reputation should quite rightly be capable of sanction.
But what about my right to freedom of expression?
Leaving aside the criminal restrictions on this right, there is a difference between your employer preventing you from expressing yourself and imposing sanctions if you do, in order to protect their business when you say something that is incompatible with their values. Dismissing you for publishing your views might, therefore, be a lawful step to take.
Is this even if the posts were made in my own time away from work?
Yes. The sanction isn’t necessarily about when and how you posted the information, but what you posted and most importantly, the impact of what was published. Remember, it’s the content that potentially damages the business, rather than the fact that the post was or was not made during time which ought to have been spent working.
Ok, but what about sharing other’s content?
Re-tweets, sharing or endorsements, even when a profile is accompanied by a disclaimer, does not necessarily save you from sanction. Donald Trump found himself subjected to intense criticism in late 2017 for sharing propaganda video footage published by the far-right group Britain First. To the casual reader, it follows that the President supported the group and the message.
Associating yourself with a particular type of content is likely to give the impression that you condone the message and it is not a stretch to view this in the same way as if you shared the message yourself.
Fair enough, but what if my profile is set to private and doesn’t name my employer?
This would be a helpful argument for you to make when faced with allegations that you placed your employer’s business into disrepute or otherwise damaged its reputation. If only a few people read it, it can’t have damaged the business significantly. However, it is not full proof. You will almost certainly have “friends”, “followers” or “connections” who know you and for who you work. There is no need necessarily for your employer to show that the wider public could see your sexist joke, but good enough that it has been shared to people inside or outside of the business.
But I deleted it as soon as I realised!
This may help you to demonstrate a lack of damage caused by your post, but this again might not be enough. Once a statement is made online, it could be recovered, saved, viewed or shared. If you’ve shared your video of you making racist remarks, it could already be too late.
How do I protect myself?
Your employer will usually have a social media policy and that is the first place to check in order to understand what material they consider to be inappropriate. It may list examples of themes of content that you should avoid.
Be sensible. You need to assume that your clients and boss is going to read what you post and think about whether you would be comfortable explaining it to the CEO. Think about the impression that it creates of you and the company for which you work.
Above all, think before you post. The consequence could be devastating.