Tips for preventing online harassment - Business Works
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Tips for preventing online harassment

Matthew Howse of Morgan Lewis Matthew Howse and Celia Kendrick at international law firm Morgan Lewis look what steps can be taken to help prevent online harassment and minimise the risks of legal liability for the employer.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, the number of employment claims relating to social media has also increased. This article examines the practical steps that employers can take to help prevent online harassment and minimise the risks of legal liability.

The first step employers should take is to produce a social media policy. In the recent Employment Tribunal case of Preece v J D Wetherspoons Plc, one of the reasons why the Tribunal decided that the dismissal of an employee who had abused customers on her Facebook page was fair was that her actions were clearly in breach of the company’s internet policy. A social media policy should include an absolute prohibition on online harassment or bullying of other employees, clients or suppliers, as well as a prohibition on making negative comments online about the company, its employees, clients or suppliers. In addition, the policy should explain that disciplinary action will be taken against employees that breach the policy, and the employer should enforce this policy consistently.

Whilst it may seem an obvious point, the level of disciplinary action should reflect the seriousness of the employee’s actions. If the online comments are fairly innocuous, it may be that the employer simply asks the employee to remove the comments and issues them with an oral warning. For serious breaches that risk bringing the company into disrepute or result in the serious harassment of, or discrimination against, a fellow employee, the company may decide to dismiss the offending employee. In a recently reported case, Northern Ireland’s Industrial Tribunal held that it was reasonable to dismiss an employee for gross misconduct for making sexual comments online about a colleague that amounted to harassment. Of course, the company’s usual disciplinary procedures should be followed in all cases.

Celia Kendrick of Morgan Lewis

Employers should also review their existing policies and consider amending them to include social media issues. The wording of equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies can be amended to make it clear that they apply to online conduct as well. In addition, employers should consider expanding any examples of disciplinary events, including gross misconduct events, to cover online harassment and online comments that are likely to bring the company into disrepute. All new and revised employment policies should be issued to employees as soon as they are brought into force. Employers with contractual handbooks should also obtain their employees’ consent to the changes.

Finally, the benefit of training employees should not be underestimated. Ideally, general equal opportunities training should be given every couple of years, with a section focusing on the risks associated with online conduct. Many individuals may not be aware that their actions on Facebook, Twitter or their personal blogs could affect their employment. Training can prevent issues from arising and, where they do arise, it will strengthen the company’s position in front of a Tribunal if it is able to show that it provided equal opportunities training to its staff.

Matthew Howse is a partner and Celia Kendrick an associate in the employment team at international law firm Morgan Lewis:

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