Employment: the good, the bad and the ugly of social media

Social media has become part of everyday life, but it can raise challenging employment issues if an employee posts inappropriate comments or pictures or spends time on social media when they should be working. We explore the risks to the agricultural sector and why a robust social media policy is essential.

Social media: the good

Reputation is very important for any business, and agriculture is no exception. In recent years, social media has become a hugely influential marketing tool. In the UK alone, 60% of the population has a Facebook account, whilst Twitter reported 15 million monthly active users.

The industry has successfully used social media’s marketing power to its advantage in the past. The #MilkPrice campaign, led by dairy farmers, added pressure on supermarkets to increase the price they pay for milk.

Social media: the bad

However, the downside to social media is that negative PR can reach a huge audience and can have a correspondingly huge effect on reputation. A disgruntled employee can have a very damaging impact on a business’ reputation if they share aspects of the business that the employer would not want brought to the public’s attention, for example animal welfare issues. Case law is littered with examples of employees posting offensive comments about their employer or colleagues on social media.

Social media can also become a health and safety issue if employees are becoming distracted by personal social media accounts whilst working. Many roles within the agricultural industry can be dangerous and require full concentration. Twitter and heavy machinery do not mix! Employers need to consider a social media policy to keep employees and those around them safe.

Social media: the ugly

It is important for employers to keep track of what their staff are ‘posting’ or ‘tweeting’ about, especially if it pertains to the workplace. If an employee does post something out of turn, an employer may want to consider taking disciplinary action against them.

However, when it comes to enforcing disciplinary action against an employee, a critical factor is whether the employer has a social media policy in place. By having a social media policy in place, employers can make their expectations clear, both in terms of how any posts on social media will be viewed and the use of social media whilst at work. However, just having a policy in place is not enough; it must also be followed, if it is to assist in a situation in which an employee has posted something inappropriate.

While various cases on the use of social media by an employee have been to the Employment Tribunal, legally the Courts have so far declined to give prescriptive guidance about social media. The basic law remains that a dismissal must be reasonable in all circumstances. That is, there must be a reasonable investigation, a fair process and the decision must be reasonable in all the circumstances.

However, a Tribunal will consider whether or not there was a policy in place. It will consider factors such as whether or not there were previous warnings as well as the severity of any alleged misconduct. Case law has specifically held that it is not a breach of human rights to monitor an employee’s use of social media while at work. Also, private posts may be grounds for a disciplinary sanction if they are related to employment.

Any agricultural businesses which do not have a current social media policy in place would be well advised to develop one as a priority in the New Year. The employment lawyers within our Agriculture team would be very pleased to help with this.

For more information please contact James Baker, Partner on james.baker@michelmores.com or 01392 687657