After-hours fun in the social media age can easily cost your job, writes Gill South
If an incident involving an employee can be seen as hurtful to the employer, it may be grounds for dismissal.
In these days of rampant social media, misconduct outside the workplace, once forgotten or laughed about the next day, is now recorded, videoed, tweeted about, only to be on YouTube the same day and forever on your work record.
No matter how tempting it is to unwind in social situations, employees of organisations that take their reputations seriously must think about their actions out of work and how they will be perceived by work contacts and employers.
A quick comment on your Facebook wall about your bad day at work, a tweet about your boss, a contretemps in the local bar with a fellow workmate, all of these can make a lasting impression for years after they have happened.
What is the connection to work? - that is the key legal question about any misconduct.
"If there is a stoush in a pub, was it about work - can we work together on Monday after that?" asks leading Auckland employment lawyer Kathryn Beck from Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon.
When an employer becomes aware of an incident or event, the first thing they should ask is: "Is this relevant to us and how relevant is it to this person in their job?"
"If this person is sitting out the back, doing data entry, does it matter if there is a picture of them on Facebook, drunk? It doesn't," says Beck. "It might matter if they were working for Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand."
There are professions where there are codes of conduct - police, lawyers, doctors and members of the armed forces. Naval commander John Butcher was stood down recently for alleged drunken behaviour at a function.
A certain level of behaviour is expected on and off duty.
Employment lawyers are interested in the connection between the conduct and the workplace.
An example of a clear connection between the conduct and work happened in January this year when an employee of PORSE In-Home Childcare went with her family to a holiday park in her PORSE company car.
She was accused of swearing and being aggressive, yelling at her children, other children and complainants. The other campers informed her company about the alleged behaviour and her PORSE manager dismissed her, saying the conduct was damaging to the company's reputation.
According to Beck, the woman was not a carer, she was an administrator, but because of the car, her behaviour and PORSE were connected.
The woman took her case to the Employment Relations Authority.
Companies like TVNZ, PORSE and Air NZ are organisations that regard employee conduct outside the workplace as relevant.
For them, their branding and reputation are all-important, says Beck. For Air NZ, much of it is about safety. If someone was seen drinking or on drugs, the concern would be that they might be flying in 12 hours.
Everyone is watching the conduct of public figures very closely.
If comedian and 2degrees spokesman Rhys Darby misbehaved, the communications company would not be happy, Beck predicts. A Red Bull spokesman would probably have more leeway, she says.
Supermodel Kate Moss got away with a lot, but did not alienate her audience.
"It's about the ability to do jobs credibly and maintain the reputation of the organisation itself," Beck says. "These are often the things that we are looking at."
You can argue that we all have our own lives, but if it brings the employer into disrepute - a schoolteacher who puts topless photos online, for instance - it is not appropriate, she says.
Social media are making misconduct or bad-mouthing an employer outside work much more public.
"If you have 'friended' your boss, they are going to see your misconduct," Beck says. "Facebook is not private, it's like standing on a street corner dissing your boss."
Employees have a duty of fidelity to their company, she adds.
The equivalent of standing on a street corner saying what's wrong with someone is perceived as being disloyal to the employer.
Linda Coles, author of the soon-to-be published book Learn Marketing with Social Media in 7 Days and founder of social media consultancy Blue Banana, knows of two people who have been reprimanded by employers over their social media activity. In one case, a young man made a comment on a Facebook page when he joined the company in 2006, making disparaging remarks about the accounting firm.
He ended up in formal counselling sessions with his bosses some time later.
"You have to be careful what you say in type and in person," warns Coles. "Once it's there, it's there forever. You are flying the company flag, as long as you work there."
Another case involved a man who had just been made redundant.
He made a negative comment on Facebook about his former company, but he had forgotten to remove work colleagues from his friends list.
"That's a public forum, and he was talking about that company disrespectfully. The CEO got on the phone and they had a conversation. You can't do that. It's a small country."
While you have to be very careful on Facebook, with Twitter you have to be even more so, says Coles.
And companies are quite within their rights to monitor what their staff are tweeting. Writing "So over today" is not helpful.
Texting something rude is no different from an abusive written letter or email, adds Coles. "It's no different at all, it's traceable."
YouTube is another one to watch. "Remember at Christmas parties, everyone has got a video camera on their phone, you don't know who's filming you," says Coles.
Dismissal is not always the solution, Clare Parkes, principal of Clarion Consulting, tells clients. Parkes helps companies of all sizes with their HR policies.
"There are lots of things to consider. How long has the person been with the business, what reputation will that company receive if they do or do not take action? Will this impact our customers? There has to be a strategy before making a decision."
If it is a values-based company, she might suggest that they work with misconduct outside work differently. "We work this through with a person. We ask them: 'How would you like to be treated?"'
The attitude could be "let's not prejudge", it's about being innocent before proven guilty. "It could be an opportunity to gain some loyalty," says Parkes.
With misconduct in social media, you can't jump to the conclusion that that person put the story out, says Parkes.
"You can't make an immediate judgment that what is online is what it looks to be. As an employer, you don't want to blot your copybook too quickly."
The HR expert remembers a case where the organisation had a salesperson who lost their licence through drink-driving. They supported the person, working out how to accommodate them with taxis.
As for the employee, the first thing you need to do, once you are aware that an incident has become public, is to front up to it, she says.
"Say: 'Look, I made mistakes, this was stupid."'
If you are a senior executive, you could still be out, as your behaviour is linked to the reputation of the company, but below that you might well be forgiven, says Parkes.
For those who muck up, they should remember: "Perception is reality. My perception of you is going to change, and it's hard for you to change [back] that perception."