Badmouthing the boss: Stress release or something more serious?

Employees expressing angst on social media may be undesirable for employers but how far can an organisation go into workers’ personal lives?

Traditionally, venting frustrations about work meant coming home after a long day and sharing grievances with a partner or friend. However, within the current climate where social media use is increasing and the internet is more accessible than ever via smartphones and tablets, employees can now air workplace issues online while still in the heat of the moment.

Often, these messages are directed towards an individual’s employer, customers or suppliers. Generally, as they are posted on private or personal pages, they remain hidden from the people they are targeting. Unfortunately though, sometimes messages are discovered by colleagues, employers and even clients. When this happens, the backlash can be significant – particularly when the individuals in question decide to make a defamation case against the poster.

Clearly, organisational policy should cover this area, informing employees of what their employer considers to be acceptable use of social media, and what is inappropriate. While many employees may not think a disgruntled rant on a Facebook profile would warrant a workplace investigation, this type of behaviour could lead to disciplinary action and even dismissal, as several recent cases have shown.

Comments on social media can be ill advised on many levels and venture into dangerous territory when they threaten the implied duty of trust and confidence in an employment contract or where the comments attack an individual, such as a colleague, manager or subordinate. Such attacks may form part of a complaint of workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination, they may also be deemed defamatory.

Employers should be careful not to consider the issue of employees expressing frustration or dissatisfaction as simply a punitive matter. In some cases employees’ complaints about issues at work could indicate a wider malaise or specific matters which need to be addressed and may warrant further investigation. Disgruntled employees may display declining productivity or may become disruptive, either intentionally or unintentionally, affecting the efficiency of the business. The risk of confidentiality breaches must also be considered.

It is therefore important to ensure that your company policy clearly outlines appropriate use of social media, including what can and cannot be shared and what may constitute workplace bullying. It may also be helpful to reinforce to workers how grievances should be addressed. Additionally, if a matter is brought to your attention, such as employees expressing severe dissatisfaction via social media, you may wish to conduct a workplace inquiry to address the source of the conflict and establish steps to take to resolve the issue.