Beware of Facebook!
That's the message from a string of cases in North America and Europe, where people have been sacked for posting derogatory comments about colleagues or their employers on blogs or social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo. There's even a new word to describe this phenomenon: getting dooced. This was coined by blogger Heather B. Armstrong, after she was fired from her Web design job for writing about work and colleagues on her blog, Dooce.com.
A good example comes from Britain, where an employee was fired from his supermarket job at Waitrose after writing "F*** the Partnership," referring to the John Lewis Partnership which owns the supermarket chain, on Facebook. He thought his views were only visible to his online friends, but a colleague printed off the remark and showed it to his boss, who fired him on the spot.
"At the end of the day what I wrote was private," he said. "You would never get sacked for saying something like that in the pub. I was sacked from Waitrose for something I said on Facebook in my own time. The bosses only saw it because one of my colleagues grassed me up. They printed out a copy of the Facebook page to use as evidence against me. It is an infringement of my privacy."
It seems strange that he would complain about privacy having just posted on a site that hundreds of millions of people use every day. This demonstrates one of the issues thrown up by social networking sites: people think they are using them for non-work related purposes, but they are so popular that negative comments do come to employers' attention.
The courts overseas have upheld sackings for derogatory postings. In a recent example from Canada , an administrative employee in the Alberta Public Service was dismissed when the employer discovered that her blog contained unflattering comments about a number of her co-workers and management, referring to them as "imbeciles", "idiot savants" and "lunatic-in-charge". After an investigation, she was interviewed about her blog. Perceiving her as largely unrepentant, the employer terminated her employment. The arbitration board deciding the case said that while she had a right to create personal blogs and hold opinions about colleagues, publicly displaying those can have consequences for the employment relationship, and decided that the dismissal was justified.
Is anyone aware of an employee in New Zealand being sacked for derogatory postings? So far the issue doesn't seem to have got to the Employment Relations Authority, but it's only a matter of time.
Greg Cain is an employment lawyer at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.