The communication revolution brought about by social media can have quite adverse personal consequences according to Bernadette John, a lecturer in Digital Professionalism at King’s College, University of London.
In her address to the Annual Conference of Education and Training Boards of Ireland (ETBI), she bluntly described a precipice where students are being made “unemployable because of what they are posting online.”
The informality of social media, and its dominance in young people’s lives, is leading to a merging and blurring of personal and professional boundaries. This vague line is being crossed by professionals and students daily, and Ms. John’s highlighting of a number of UK and US cases concerning the removal of teachers shows this line is anything but illusory.
One such case involved a teacher and teaching assistant being fired for derogatory online posts labelling their pupils “inbred” who shopped in “working class supermarkets.”
In addition to this, The Washington Post ran an investigative piece entitled “When Young Teachers go Wild”, quoting the Facebook page of a Washington D.C. teacher which included a post saying, “Teaching in the DC Public Schools – Lesson #1: Don’t smoke crack while pregnant.”
The removal of such teachers shows how social media’s use as an open forum for people to talk about their lives is leading to professionals being pulled up for more than bad grammar and spelling.
In Ireland, the legislature has tried to keep pace with this rapidly changing social environment. Employers may be held vicariously liable for inappropriate behaviour and are also liable to suffer reputational damage as result.
Cyber bullying in particular has been given protection under the “Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act”, which came about in 2005, and mounting case law shows a growing trend on the part of the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) to uphold employee dismissals based on inappropriate social media behaviour.
In a recent case, the EAT held that the plaintiff’s dismissal for posting derogatory comments in respect of her employer was just grounds as the employer was specifically named in the comments.
Further case law shows how having specific policy in relation to social media is vital in allowing the employer to justify dismissal in the event of acts committed outside working hours.
In another, the plaintiff posted derogatory comments regarding customers where the employer had issued a staff handbook stating that acts committed outside of work that may bring the employer into disrepute would constitute misconduct. This allowed for her dismissal.
John summarised the growing problem with the sharp warning: “Young people may be technologically adept, but they require guidance and support to ensure that they take a long term view of the potential consequences of the material they share online.”