News & Views

Apple was right to prune employee over Facebook comments

BY Fiona McBeath
Employment law
BG Purple

An Employment Tribunal has found that technology colossus Apple was entitled to dismiss one of its UK employees over Facebook posts which, in Apple’s opinion, brought the company into disrepute.

Samuel Crisp, an employee at Apple’s Norwich store, was burned after a Facebook “friend” shopped him to a manager at the store for posting a series of comments criticising Apple and its products. Mr Crisp was dismissed and took his former employers to the Employment Tribunal, claiming that his dismissal was unfair. He also claimed that his right to private and family life and his right to freedom of expression under the European Convention of Human Rights had been breached.  

Apple responded by arguing that the comments had jeopardised the company’s brand. Mr Crisp had been clearly warned that making adverse comments would be treated as gross misconduct. The employee’s claim was ultimately unsuccessful, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Crisp’s Facebook page was private. The Tribunal noted that social media has developed to the point where it is now extremely easy to re-post comments, increasing the potential audience, thus it did not matter that Mr Crisp had limited other users’ access to the comments. The employee’s claim for breach of his human rights was also unsuccessful; the Tribunal presumably being guided by the case of Pay v. Lancashire Probation Service which established that any information published on a social networking site is not private.  

This is not the first time that a Tribunal has had to grapple with the question of whether it is fair to dismiss an employee over comments made on social networking sites. In Whitham v Club 24 Ltd t/a Ventura, it was held that the dismissal was unfair because the employee in question posted derogatory comments which did not readily identify her employer so did not necessarily damage the company’s reputation. However, in contrast with the Apple case, in Stephens v. Halfords Retail Plc the employee did clearly identify his employer and was still held to be unfairly dismissed even though the company had a Social Media policy that prohibited derogatory comments. Halfords had also argued that the comments harmed the brand’s reputation.     

As the Apple case is an Employment Tribunal judgment, it is not binding on other courts or tribunals; however, it highlights the importance of having a clear and thorough social media policy in place. Apple was only able to rigorously protect its brand because its training and policies stressed the importance of the company’s image and clearly indicated that any adverse comments made by staff would be dealt with harshly. By contrast, an employer looking to impose disciplinary sanctions on employees in the absence of a clear policy would struggle to defend their actions at a Tribunal.  

Think it’s time your organisation got a Social Media policy? Log into the client area to find a style policy that you can adapt to your organisation’s needs, or, alternatively, contact your Legal Manager for more information.

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