When personal activities cause professional pain: Disciplining staff for actions outside the workplace

Before social media, the professional and personal lives of employees were arguably more separate, but the onward march of online public showcasing continues to put some organisations in a difficult position.
Mon 30th Oct 2017

If the social media accounts of your employees have caused a few headaches over recent years, you are not alone. Organisations of all sizes have suffered PR nightmares caused by derogatory remarks, embarrassing photographs, questionable hobbies and intolerant views. But where can employers draw the line, and how can they discourage it in the first place?

On the whole, organisations don’t have a huge amount of control over what their employees do outside working hours. However, the rise in incidents has caused many employers to introduce clauses that give them the right to hold employees to account if they undertake actions that specifically involve the employer. These clauses are becoming standard inclusions in employee contracts, staff handbooks and social media policies.

Bad words and pictures

Top of the no-no list is anything directly targeting the organisation, no matter where or when the action is taken. Your social media policy should prohibit the posting of negative remarks about customers, colleagues or the organisation itself. Many also ban the posting of images taken inside offices and sites.

Some organisations go as far as prohibiting employees from posting anything about the organisation unless it is on the organisation’s official social media account, and only if authorised to do so. That said, it’s worth considering if this is too extreme for your culture. After all, employees can also be your greatest brand ambassadors.

The don’ts of work dos

Today’s employment contracts and staff handbooks also tend to include clauses specifically referencing staff parties and impromptu social occasions. Harassment can be a problem, particularly when alcohol flows freely, so making it clear that inappropriate behaviour of any type will result in disciplinary action can help to minimise awkward nights followed by even more awkward working days.

Other employment

It may also be reasonable to prohibit employees from taking other paid employment while working for you. If not a blanket employment ban, then it’s worth considering whether you approve of employees working for competitors, or organisations with interests in your sector such as lobbying groups.

Into the grey

Anything beyond the areas mentioned above starts to get a bit murky, and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Here are a couple of examples:

  • What if an employee is a member of a political party with far right or left leanings, and insists on expressing their beliefs on social media? Employment legislation potentially restricts you from interfering, although it is possible to act where the posts themselves become discriminatory or offensive in nature, or damaging to your organisation’s reputation. It may also be a matter for the police to deal with.
  • What if a customer happens upon the Facebook profile of one of your more gregarious employees, and decides to terminate their contract after viewing some rather unsightly party photos? Depending on the circumstances you might not be able do anything more than bring the matter to the employee’s attention.
  • What if an employee is speaking out publicly about something your organisation is involved with, such as condemning the environmental damage caused by a process your sector tends to use? Disciplining the employee might be possible, but this can be tricky if the employee considers they are whistleblowing.

When faced with grey areas like these, you should obtain legal advice. Charging ahead with a formal reprimand or dismissal could land you on the losing side of a tribunal claim. Employment lawyers can help you to weigh up tangible damage done to your organisation with the rights of the employee under current law.

Prevention is preferable

That said, there is something you can do to prevent yourself getting into the grey areas – a solid interview process with pre-employment checks.

Asking how a candidate spends their leisure time, including any hobbies they might have, can be extremely valuable, and doesn’t need to come across as being overly personal. It can simply appear like a genuine desire to get to know them. This can be reinforced with information gleaned from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites. These checks help to provide a balanced picture of both the personal and professional lives of the candidate, which in turn helps you decide if they will be a suitable ambassador of your brand.


If you would like more information or advice relating to this article or an Employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Cook on 01727 798098.

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Every care is taken in the preparation of our articles. However, no responsibility can be accepted to any person who acts on the basis of information contained in them alone. You are recommended to obtain specific advice in respect of individual cases.