It’s something that we lawyers hear a lot of these days: an employee has brought the company into disrepute because of something said or done in cyberspace.
It leads, in fact, to an interesting debate about space: where does my workspace end, and my personal space begin?
A recent case in the UK has given some fresh food for thought in this area – and is worth a read.
Adrian Smith worked for a Housing Trust (broadly, an equivalent organisation to our Housing Corporation). In February 2011 he posted a link on his Facebook wall to a BBC article which was headlined “Gay church marriages set to get the go-ahead“. He posted a comment after the article which read “an equality too far“.
One of Mr Smith’s workmates was a Facebook friend. She took issue with Mr Smith and posted her own comment : “does this mean you don’t approve?”. Mr Smith thought carefully about a resp0nse, and then posted an explanation about his position (in essence, as a Christian he questioned why people who didn’t believe in Christ would have an interest in getting married in a church – given the Bible was specific about marriage being between a man and a woman).
The co-worker complained about Mr Smith’s statement of views. The complaint was investigated by the employer – and upheld. In short, the Housing Trust found that Mr Smith’s job required him to process applications from all walks of life, and that his ability to do that free from allegations or suspicions of bias had been compromised by his Facebook statements. He was demoted, and forced to take a significant pay cut.
Mr Smith challenged the decision (albeit outside a time limit which would have allowed for a more significant claim to be made). Of note was the Court’s conclusion that a reasonable reader of Mr Smith’s Facebook wall could not rationally conclude that the posting about gay marriage had been made on the employer’s behalf. Apart from a brief mention at the top of the page about Mr Smith’s job (and the fact he was employed as a manager at a Trust) there was nothing to link him to his employer at all – and comments that he made were in a personal capacity accordingly.
Personally, I think this is a victory for common sense – not everything you say and do can reasonably be interpreted as being said or done on behalf of your employer.
But the case does not establish absolute boundaries – and employees would still be well advised to be careful in the way in which they express private views. That too, is just commonsense.
(Image by rishibando and licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 (Generic) licence.)