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Is a Facebook ‘like’ grounds for dismissal?

This month brings yet another social media cautionary tale:  the Tribunal case of Blue v Food Standards Agency. The facts were rather unusual. Mr Blue worked for the Food Standards Agency as a meat hygiene inspector. It appears that he happened to join a Facebook discussion, “bantering” with two former colleagues who had been dismissed from the abattoir at which he was based.
Reports suggest that the workers who had lost their jobs were venting their feelings about their ex-boss, and musing darkly about what they wished they could to do him (although it seems they were not seriously intending to commit violence). Mr Blue allegedly typed “aye right, I wish,” and clicked to indicate that he “liked” a particular comment. This came to the attention of the management, and then the Food Standards Agency. After a disciplinary investigation the Agency dismissed him, claiming that the online activity was “unprofessional” and amounted to a “breach of trust.”
Mr Blue raised an action for unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal-and won.
The Tribunal awarded him the sum of £32, 799.13. It seems that whilst the Agency had a social media policy and guidance in place, this was, in the Tribunal’s view, primarily directed at the use of social media at work. This case therefore stands as a reminder that social media policies and guidance should be carefully worded to cover all social media use that might cause the employer reputational damage, or threaten its external relationships. 
What other lessons can we draw from this case?
In newspaper interviews, the apparently remorseful Mr Blue said “I thought it was just the same as having a chat down the pub.” The reality is that conversations on social networking sites that feel “private” don’t always stay that way. This case also illustrates that just “liking” or “re-tweeting” someone else’s comments can imply endorsement of those remarks.
For employers, it is interesting to note the Tribunal’s reasoning for making the finding of unfair dismissal. They seem to have looked back at the claimant’s previous good record, and then looked ahead to consider the impact of this incident on his ability to do the job, measuring the extent to which the relationship of trust and confidence between employer and employee had actually been affected.
Employment Judge Peter Wallington QC was reported as saying:
“There was no objective reason to believe that his performance would in future be different simply because of his foolish participation in what he had mistakenly believed to be a private online conversation that had become more public.”
This can be added to the list of social media cases where the Tribunal’s decision is carefully balanced in light of the particular circumstances, and suggests that in the territory of social media infractions, things will not always be clear-cut.
If you would like advice on refreshing your social media policy, or find that you develop a workplace issue in this field, you can speak to our Head of Employment Robert Holland, who regularly writes and speaks on this topic.
For further information or to discuss any social media related issues, please contact our Employment team at Balfour+Manson.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article site are soley those of the original authors and other contributors and do not purport to give specific legal advice.
Also in this month’s employment law MATTERS:

Holiday pay

The upcoming introduction of shared parental leave

Sex discrimination based on unequal paternity/maternity pay

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