Weekly dilemma: Derogatory comments by employees on social websites

One of my employees recently posted a comment on his Facebook page to the effect that our company is on the brink of insolvency, which is incorrect, and could damage our reputation. What can we do?

Sadly, as a result of the growing popularity of online social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, employers are increasingly finding that employees are turning to such sites to air grievances about their employers. As well as taking disciplinary action against the employee, there are steps you can take to limit the potential damage caused to your reputation by the comment.

The statement posted by the employee on Facebook is capable of being defamatory because it contains an untrue imputation about your financial position which is likely to undermine your reputation in the eyes of your clients (and others). In practical terms this gives you grounds on which to seek to have the material removed from Facebook, and may give rise to an action for damages to compensate for the harm caused to your reputation.

In the first instance you should write to the employee putting him or her on notice of the rights that have allegedly been infringed, the potential remedies that you may have against him or her (including an action for damages) and a demand that he or she remove the offending material from the website immediately. You should consider commencing disciplinary action against the employee.

You should also contact Facebook directly with a view to getting the statement removed from the website (in the event that the employee does not, or is unable to, remove it permanently). Some social networking sites, including Facebook, have an automated reporting system on the website which you should use to report the offending material as soon as possible. This report will initiate an investigation by the site which will hopefully lead to the material being taken down within a reasonable timescale. However, you should also write a formal letter of demand to Facebook requesting that the statement be taken down.

If the material is not removed expeditiously by the employee and/or Facebook following a written request, this is the time to consider whether or not to pursue a claim for damages against the employee (as author of the statement) and/or Facebook (as the publisher of the statement). This will always depend on the circumstances, and you should bear in mind that pursuing a claim for damages can be expensive and time-consuming.

Suzanne Seaman and Sonal Cooke, solicitors, Collyer Bristow LLP

XpertHR FAQs on derogatory comments by employees on social websites

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