Social Media Misconduct: Can It Justify Termination of Employment?

Several weeks ago, in an event highly publicized across Canada, a 15-year old teenager from British Columbia named Amanda Todd took her own life.  Apparently, she had been the victim of cyber bullying for quite some time. 

Shortly before her death, she had posted a video on YouTube describing the experiences that eventually motivated her to take her own life. 

Most companies of any size have instituted policies governing the way in which their employees conduct themselves online.

Her death has sparked a great deal of interest on the topic of cyber bullying.  Unfortunately, it has also sparked a great deal of comment of a negative nature. 

One such comment, which was particularly offensive, was posted by a resident of London, Ontario on an Amanda Todd Memorial Facebook web page.  The author wrote the words “Thank God this b—– is dead”. 

A woman living in Calgary noticed the comment and found it sufficiently offensive to try to determine who had left it.  She was successful in doing so and determined that the author was employed by Grafton-Fraser, a national clothier, at one of its stores in London, Ontario.  She reported the event to the company which then terminated the individual’s employment.  The company issued a statement indicating that “our company ethics are based on tolerance, respect and fair and honourable treatment of all individuals, internally, with our customers and the population as a whole”. 

I would have thought that most people of good conscience would agree that comments of this nature are offensive in the extreme.  Having said that, we do live in a country in which freedom of speech is highly valued by its citizens and zealously protected by its courts.  Should someone responsible for making comments of this nature, even if most people would find them offensive, lose his or her job over it?

Social media has become so pervasive that most companies of any size have instituted policies governing the way in which their employees conduct themselves online.  While corporate policies will vary in this connection, it is not at all uncommon for companies to make clear to their employees that online conduct that violates company policy by having the potential to put the company in a negative light may amount to cause for termination.  In the past, the focus of such policies has generally been on employees who make online comments of a negative nature about their employers.  In this case, however, the offensive comment had nothing to do with the employer.  Nevertheless, this particular employer determined not only that disciplinary action was warranted, but in fact that the appropriate disciplinary action was termination. 

This situation illuminates for all employers the advisability of ensuring that their corporate policies specifically identify online misconduct, whether directed at the employer or otherwise, as cause for termination without notice.

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