Employee Libel on Social Media: Employers May Be Found Liable

Sexual harassment in the workplace and unfair dismissal were two of the main reasons for legal action being taken against employers; however, now employee libel on social media websites can be added to that list. It is now far easier for libelous comments to not only be made public, but to be shared with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. All at the click of a mouse. In recent months, a number of cases have been filed in the courts for employee libel on social media.

Employee libel on social media sites is commonplace

It is very easy for individuals to post comments about individuals and companies. Those comments can result in legal action being taken against an employer. Defamation of character, slander, and libel are common. Lord McAlpine is taking legal action for defamation of character after he was accused of being a pedophile on social media sites such as Twitter.

A tweet can be sent that is then retweeted by a number of different account holders. Tens become hundreds, and hundreds become hundreds of thousands, as the comment or tweet goes viral. If an employee tweets a personal opinion using a work account, an employer may be found liable for damages.

Even if a company is not found liable for damages, the negative press that is received by a high profile court case has serious potential to damage a company’s reputation. That could result in loss of business, and customers may leave for competitors in their droves.

Confidential corporate information being posted online

Most employees have social media accounts, and while not all will post sensitive information or disparaging comments, some will. A recent survey conducted on social media use revealed that one in five people have a secret or personal information revealed by others on social media websites. 73% of employers thought their employees shared too much information on social media platforms. Data from Facebook indicates that 3.5 billion snippets of information are posted on the site every week of every year. Many of those comments could prove harmful to an employer.

Not worried about employee libel on social media? You should be!

There is a common misconception that if an employer has not instructed an employee to post something on social media sites, they will not be liable for damages. That is not necessarily the case. Some court cases may clear the employer of liability, but others have seen employers liable for the actions of their employees. Material posted on social media websites is now admissible in court.

The problem is growing. Many employees have been fired for comments posted on Facebook and Twitter, with their actions considered to be gross misconduct. Comments posted by employees about their employer, or activities that take place at work, have resulted in a number of job losses. Virgin Atlantic recently fired 13 cabin crew members for posting disparaging remarks about the company on social media websites.

Companies are now forced to keep a close check on what is being said about them by their employees on social media sites. Lawsuits have been filed against individuals for posting sensitive data or libelous comments on Facebook and other social media platforms, and companies have been taken to court for the actions of their employees. If libelous comments are posted using an employer’s account, or on an employer’s equipment, a lawsuit may be filed and the employer found liable.

Legal action may be taken for vicarious liability even if it is clear that a comment has been posted that was not sanctioned by an employer. If an employer fails to monitor employee use of social media accounts, fails to take action to remove libelous comments, or has not issued social media usage policies to the staff, the courts may decide damages need to be paid.

How to avoid being liable for employee libel on social media

Issue employees with guidelines on social media site usage even if social media access is not permitted from the workplace. Employees must be told about what is acceptable and unacceptable. If employees are not informed of the rules, how can they be expected to follow them? What is obvious to an employer may not be obvious to employees.

For instance, employees should be instructed not to post personal opinions using company accounts. These may appear as if they have come from the company itself. Any comments that are sexist, racist, discriminatory, or could be considered defamatory, must not be posted on social media. It may be necessary to provide definitions. Not everyone will be aware of what counts as a discriminatory or defamatory comment.

After issuing social media policies to employees, make sure a signature is obtained to confirm those policies have been received and read. Should an employee break the rules, an employer must be able to show that the employee was informed of a company’s social media policies.