I’ve written on many occasions before about how employers need to have a usage policy for social media to guide employees on what is and is not acceptable use of Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc. As the recent (unreported) case of Stephens v Halfords PLC has shown, merely having a policy is not a magic panacea in itself. Employers must act reasonably in enforcing that policy.
Halfords apparently has a social media usage policy which prohibits employees making any comments on social media platforms that were not in the best interests of the company or that encouraged dissent. That seems rather oppressive, if correctly stated but that’s another issue.
Mr Stephens was a deputy store manager with Halfords, the high street retailer of everything car and bike related. The company decided to implement a redundancy programme and went into a collective consultation process. He understood that the consultation process was confidential until such time as the consultation process had been completed, at which time all employees would be aware of the proposals. Mr Stephens was also off sick with stress at the time, but attended the meetings. He decided to put up a comment on Facebook which was titled “Halfords workers against working three out of four weekends”.
He subsequently realised that it breached the company’s social media policy and promptly removed the comment.
Somehow this came to the attention of Halfords, who took a dim view and instituted disciplinary proceedings against Mr Stephens. He apologised for posting the comment and said it wouldn’t happen again. However, Halfords summarily dismissed him for breach of trust. He issued proceedings at the Employment Tribunal.
Mr Stephens won. Halfords response in summarily dismissing him was held not to be within the range of reasonable responses, i.e no reasonable employer would have taken that step in the circumstances. He had apologised and removed the comment. He had also waited to post the comment until such time as he thought the company’s proposals were in the public domain.
Employers need to act reasonably when disciplining employees. In this instance, summary dismissal was not a reasonable response, especially when he was unwell, acted quickly to rectify his comments (which do not seem to have been that inflammatory) and he promised not to repeat it.
By the by, it’s not clear how Halfords came to learn of the comment. My guess is that one of his Facebook “friends” grassed him up and all Facebook users need to remember that even if their security settings are set to the maximum you can’t prevent comments “escaping” and being passed to management.
The case isn’t reported but thanks to xPert HR for the summary on which I relied in writing this post.