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Blogging the hand that feeds you

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, blogs — it seems just about everyone is putting something about themselves on the Internet and networking on these types of sites that are sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0.” Many people are practically addicted to using these sites, posting their status and sending messages all day. The concern for employers is not if, but how much, employees are using these sites while at or in association with their work.

There are the standard concerns about using company time and resources to visit non-work related websites and many employers have computer-use policies that address these issues. Some employers actually ban or block access to certain sites by employees at work, such as the Ontario government’s ban on Facebook. But, as much as they may try, it’s almost impossible to completely prevent employees with computers from spending at least few minutes on personal Internet use, even if it’s just checking personal email.

However, what might be of more concern to employers is employees who post things about the employer on their own sites away from work. Pictures of the employee in uniform on her Facebook page or posting something on a blog about the company can be done outside the workplace on the employee’s own computer. Can the employer do anything to prevent this?

In January 2007, employees of Ontario grocery chain Farm Boy created a Facebook page where they blogged about things they did at work, including theft and other misconduct. The company saw the page and fired the employees.

In 2008, an employee of British Columbia grocery distribution company EV Logistics was fired after he posted racist and violent comments on his blog, including support of Nazism. The employee also mentioned EV Logistics in his post. However, an arbitrator reinstated the employee because he took down the blog, posted an apology in its place and apologized to his employer.

An employee of the Alberta government wasn’t so lucky in 2008 after she blogged about her office. She made negative comments about her department and made negative comments about her supervisor and co-workers. She also posted emails and other information that identified her employer. In this case, the arbitrator found the employment relationship was damaged beyond repair, the online comments were malicious and the employee wasn’t initially sorry for posting them.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of expression, but only in the public realm. In the context of employment in the private sector, companies have the right to protect their businesses and reputations from negative comments. In at least some circumstances, employers can discipline or dismiss an employee who includes company information in a private blog. But where does the line between discipline and dismissal exist? If an employee is apologetic and takes the blog down as in the EV Logistics case, does that lessen the damage if the blog has already been viewed by many people? How negative does a blog have to be to justify dismissal?

Employers can take action to counter comments by an employee that could be damaging to the employer or other employees, but it’s probably safe to assume the comments would have to be particularly egregious to warrant full dismissal.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter that looks at employment law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

What do you think? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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