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27/07/2010 - Internet: loose talk costs jobs

Many employees use the internet at work for business purposes’ These purposes include  research and using e-mail to communicate to fellow employees or outside business contacts.

Many also use the Internet for personal reasons. This usage may or may not be acceptable to their employer. If the Employer has an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) it is important for you to read it and understand what is and is not permitted. Even when custom and practice indicates that a blind-eye will be turned don‘t rely on this. It is our experience that rules are often selectively applied against employees whose face doesn’t fit or in downturns when they are looking for excuses to lay-off staff.

The safest approach is for you to assume that your employer would take a dim view of private internet/e-mail use whilst at work.
You should also assume that your usage is monitored and that any items saved to your workplace computer can be viewed by your employer. Please be aware that even if you delete items from your computer these can be recovered by IT specialists.

Not just about using the internet but what you say on it


Even if you are allowed limited access to the internet whilst at work your employer may object to how you use it.

Our advice is don’t post to forums or discussions from your workplace computer or in working hours (even if permitted). Any derogatory remarks about the employer, other employees or anyone else for that matter may be used against an employee since it is clear who said it!  Additionally do not rely on your comments remaining private if you use a pseudonym. Some employers will go to extraordinary lengths and sadly not all forum administrators can be relied on to uphold your privacy. The case of the teacher Adam Walker is relevant is a cautionary tale. He posted comments online whilst at work to a forum under a pseudonym. However the forum’s IT took the extraordinary step (but expect that if your comments are controversial!) of attempting to trace the users server. The employer was in turn equally motivated to trace the user back to a specific PC.

Even outside of work

Whilst some workers may realise that anything said whilst at work might be used against them few seem to appreciate that the use of the internet outside of work, particularly via Social Networking Sites (SNS) e.g. face book, can get them into trouble.

There are an increasing number of disciplinary cases where an employees statements have been used against them e.g. for criticising their employer or even their industry.

This is for a number of reasons:-

SNS are by their nature ‘public’ domains. You might attempt to restrict what non-friends can see/access (allow many don’t even take this basic security step) but then not be too choosy as to whom you allow to join as ‘friends’. There are some employers (or their ‘spies’/jealous colleagues) who do join as friends to find out what you might be saying (often after a tip-off due to earlier comments).

Solidarity was called into a case where the employee was joined by a ‘friend’ on Facebook who was anything but. He provoked the employee into making intemperate statements about his industry (although he never mentioned a specific company)  and then proceeded to copy them. The ‘industry’ watchdog was then informed who traced the employee and a case initiated on the basis that he had brought the ’company into disrepute’! If you use Facebook or other social networking sites we suggest that you avoid making any mention of your workplace.

Because SNS are ’public domains’ they are regarded as having the potential to cause ‘significant damage to the companies reputation’ i.e. bring the company into disrepute. If you make comments of a controversial nature and there is any link to your workplace you run the risk of facing disciplinary action.
 
Even if your workplace is not identified, if someone can link the two parties i.e. by someone who can read the comments then the employer could argue (and have) that the employee’s statements contradict a company’s ’ethic or vision’ including insulting ’customers’. Apart from ‘Status’ and ‘Walls’ this can also include ‘Chat’ statements if the recipient is malicious enough to copy them. In other words if the statements could be used against an employee if made at work then it could be equally true if made on a SNS in or outside of work.

There is no guarantee of course that any statement will get you into trouble for it has to be seen by someone who is interested (negatively), regarded as serious enough by the company and provable in any court/tribunal. Invariably however there will be cases where these factors do come into play.

There are a number of ways where you can minimise the chances of any comments (innocently made or otherwise) made on a SNS being seen or used against you.

 

  • Ensure your Privacy settings are high as this controls the amount of information people can see about you
  • Be aware of so-called ‘friends’ who want to join. Are they genuine? How much information do they supply about themselves? How many mutual friends do you have with them?
  • Be careful as to what you put on your status but, in particular, on any ‘walls’ or ‘comments’. Think about how what you write might be perceived by others. Bear in mind that this is not a casual pub conversation but something that can be permanently recorded and used against you.
  • Be careful what personal information you place on your profile such as where you work and live.
  • Most importantly of all do not discuss your work online and don’t engage in controversial discussion with anyone other than genuine friends!


The use of SNS is becoming an employment and legal minefield. As more use it  there will be more cases of employer sanction. Whether a higher court/tribunal will support the employer or employee will depend on the individual circumstances. We suggest you don’t get caught out in the first place and the best policy is not to put your opinions or details of your company’s, behaviour, vision or private information, or work colleagues online! Basically if you believe that whoever might be offended by your statements may be able to see it and can do something about it you make them at your peril!