Cases concerning the when and how of employee use of social networking sites (such as Twitter and Facebook) are now beginning to reach the employment tribunals.

No new legal principles are involved in deciding when and whether it is appropriate for an employer to discipline or even dismiss an employee for inappropriate use of these sites. But because the subject is likely to come up with increasing frequency it may be useful to draw attention to a couple of recent cases.

In the first (local) case an employment tribunal found that dismissal was within the band of reasonable responses open to pub chain Wetherspoons after it dismissed a shift manager at one of its pubs in Cheshire because she had posted insalubrious comments about two customers on Facebook. The customers concerned had abused the manager, a Miss Preece, when she was on duty. The abuse had continued afterwards in that Miss Preece was later subjected to anonymous telephone calls, including one in which she was told "get your f*cking P45 ready because you are out of here…". An important factor which led the tribunal to rule that the dismissal was fair was that Miss Preece had signed up to Wetherspoon’s formal email and social media policy which included an explicit statement to the effect that disciplinary action could be taken if any comments on Twitter, Facebook etc. should "be found to lower the reputation of the organisation, staff or customers" (Preece v JD Wetherspoons plc Liverpool ET on 18 January 2011).

However in another case a few weeks earlier an employment tribunal held that dismissal was not within the band of reasonable responses open to the Halfords chain of stores. Halfords had disciplined and then dismissed a deputy manager who had posted negative comments on Facebook. Mr Stephens had set up a Facebook page: "Halfords workers against working 3 out of 4 weekends". He sued for unfair dismissal, won and was awarded £11,350 compensation (Stephens v Halfords plc Torquay ET on 3 November 2010).

In this type of case, as in any "misconduct" unfair dismissal case, an employment tribunal will look at whether the employer went through appropriate procedures and will consider whether or not dismissal fell within the range of reasonable responses open to an employer in all the circumstances (and will not substitute its own view of what would have been reasonable). As many HR practitioners are aware, in carrying out this exercise an tribunal will apply three main tests, as follows:

  • At the time when he dismissed him, did the employer believe that the employee had been guilty of the misconduct?
  • Were there reasonable grounds for the belief?
  • Did the employer carry out as much investigation into the matter as was reasonable in all the circumstances of the case before dismissing the employee?

Subscribers should note that we have added a draft social media policy to the library of downloadable documents in the protected area of our website.