Impact of social media backlash for employers

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13 July, 2021

On going to bed disappointed on Sunday night, many no doubt expected they would be getting up on Monday morning to an influx of press articles and social media posts centred around a technical critique of the football skills on display in the final along side messages of support for the players. Few probably expected to be faced with such a concerning level of racially motivated criticism, leading to the press being dominated not by the loss itself, but the racist backlash against a number of team members.

Included within the press response is the news that a Commercial Building Manager at Savills Estate Agent has been drawn into the controversy as a result of allegations a racist comment was made from a social media account registered to his name. Whilst he claims that the account was hacked by an unknown device, and the comment was not made by him, it has understandably been a cause of concern for his employer. Such press can be extremely damaging to the reputation of an employer, irrespective of any potential explanation for the circumstances which may exonerate an employee. This is particularly the case in the education sector, where the promotion of diversity and equality is so important to the educational provision and culture of educational institutions. It highlights the importance of employers having a robust social media policy, and ensuring staff members are aware of their responsibilities in ensuring their social media presence is reflective of the ethos of the employer. It is always advisable to ensure that employees are aware that any social media account should not be connected to the employer organisation, and it should be clear that any views expressed are not those of the employer.

However, this will not always afford employers protection. In this case, the employee's account wasn't directly linked to the employer, and his employment with Savills was ascertained by a cross search to identify his LinkedIn account. As such, it may be possible to identify employers irrespective of whether accounts are linked and the potential for reputational damage remains. In this instance, there was an influx of posts demanding Savills provide comment on the proposed action they would take.

It can be difficult for employers to hold out that firm action will be taken given the need for a fair and impartial investigation into such issues. Any statement made to protect the organisation's reputation could be interpreted as pre-judging any investigation, leaving employers stuck between a rock and a hard place. There needs to a balance between reputational management and fair process.

As such, it is essential that employers have a robust social media policy in place and ensure that staff are aware of and understand the content. It should press on employees that any social media account should not openly identify the employer organisation, and in light of the circumstances in this case, could also include a provision emphasising that employees will be responsible for ensuring the security of their own accounts should hacking become an issue. Employees could be advised to set up security alerts informing them of any failed or successful attempt to access their account from unregistered devices. And the policy should set out clearly that any breach of the policy can result in disciplinary action. Serious breaches that can amount to gross misconduct should also be listed, whether here, or cross referred to a disciplinary policy. Teaching staff should also be aware that severe breaches with discriminatory elements could lead to regulatory intervention.

The Employment and HR team at Forbes are experienced in advising in relation to social media management and policy drafting and enforcement. Our Dispute Resolution team are also experienced in advising in relation to reputational management. We can provide a robust, full service approach for employers facing related issues. For further information please contact Rosalind Leahy on 01772 222185 or Rosalind Leahy.

For more information contact Rosalind Leahy in our Employment & HR department via email or phone on 01772 220185. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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