The dangers of social media - how to avoid the pitfalls
Since its advent a mere decade ago, social media has become a popular tool for communication, with an increasing number of people sharing their views and experiences online with a potentially wide audience.
However, as IEUA-QNT Industrial Services Officer Jill McKeon writes, the ease with which such widespread communication can be effected can also be a trap, most notably when online activity attracts unwelcome attention from those outside a person’s circle of ‘friends’, such as his or her employer.
In the education sector, a number of employees, especially teachers, have been disciplined over material they have posted online, even when the activity has occurred outside working hours. While this might be seen as an unwarranted impingement on the private lives of employees, an employer may have a legitimate reason to intervene if it can be established that the impugned activity has a significant impact on the employment.
Common law precedent has established that there are limited circumstances in which an employer may validly discipline an employee for out-of-hours conduct. These are when:
- The conduct is likely to cause serious damage to the employer-employee relationship; or
- The conduct damages the employer’s interests; or
- The conduct is incompatible with the employee’s duties.
However, the conduct must be serious enough to indicate a repudiation of the employment contract.
Conduct which erodes the trust and confidence of the employment relationship could include posting material which reveals dishonesty on the part of the employee (such as posting an ‘update’ from the airport after calling in sick). Another example is making disparaging comments online about the employer, co-workers or students, or even ‘liking’ negative comments made by others.
Such conduct could also damage the employer’s interests, in cases where breaches of confidentiality, bullying or reputational damage can be established. Additionally, for teachers, the conduct could amount to a breach of one or more of the Australian Professional Standards, such as Standard 7, which requires teachers to ‘engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community’.
Posting inappropriate comments online about the employer or other members of the school community could therefore be incompatible with a teacher’s duties, which include meeting codes of ethics and conduct.
Further, teachers need to be aware that their conduct outside working hours is also subject to scrutiny, at least when the conduct enters the public domain.
Teachers are held to high standards of behaviour within the community and are expected to be positive role models for their students. These expectations are enshrined in the Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005, which requires teachers to ‘satisfy a standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher’ in order to be deemed ‘suitable to teach’, a prerequisite for obtaining (and retaining) registration. Posting material online which potentially transgresses the expected ‘standard’ might, in extreme cases, raise questions about a teacher’s suitability for the profession.
Like all employees, teachers and other education employees are entitled to expect that their employer will not seek to exercise undue and excessive control over their private activities.
However, in order to prevent conflict in the workplace, employees should ensure that they exercise common sense in their use of social media, including the use of stringent privacy settings.
Members are encouraged to contact our union’s member services team on FREECALL 1800 177 938 for further advice on this issue.
This article was extracted from the November 2015 edition of Independent Voice.