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Taking workplace battles online

Social media and electronic devices make it more difficult to contain workplace disputes

By Jeffrey R. Smith

An acrimonious work environment can lead to problems, and not just in the workplace.

In this age of social media and smartphones, it’s common for people to be able to disseminate their thoughts and opinions instantly. So when things get heated at work, employees can spread their displeasure far and wide outside of the workplace. This can do damage to the organization in terms of reputation and recruiting, but it can also be damaging to the employee’s job prospects if it’s serious enough.

A few years ago, a Canada Post depot in Edmonton was experiencing a fair bit of labour strife. Canada Post was trying to decrease socializing by employees while at work to make them more productive. This created tensions in the workplace that led to verbal altercations between employees and a supervisor. One female worker, with 31 years’ service, who participated in these altercations was suspended without pay for three days.

After the suspension, Canada Post discovered the employee had made 30 posts on her Facebook page that made fun of and insulted her supervisors and the corporation. In one post, the employee said she had a voodoo doll of a supervisor and in another she expressed a desire to run the supervisor over with her car. The posts were visible to more than 50 of the employee’s Facebook friends, including several co-workers.

When the supervisors referred to in the posts became aware of them, they had to take time off for emotional distress. Canada Post fired the employee for being insubordinate and for conduct damaging to the corporation. The union grieved the firing but an arbitrator dismissed it, finding the employee didn’t regret the posts and her attitude in such a tense workplace left little chance to mend the employment relationship, even though she was a senior employee.

So how damaging can social media posts by employees be to the employer? In the above case, they were considered by both the employer and the arbitrator to be damaging enough to warrant termination of a long-term employee. Should employers have influence over what employees post on an independent site on their own time? Would it make a difference if the employer wasn’t mentioned, but specific employees were specifically mentioned? Would that be considered workplace harassment or a personal matter between the individuals outside the workplace?

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have become a normal part of everyday life, both at work and at home, so employers should be careful to contain and deal with workplace problems before they spread outside the boundaries of the workplace.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

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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