Facebook can get you fired

By Christelle du Toit, ITWeb senior journalist
Johannesburg, 07 Mar 2008

South Africans can be fired based on their Facebook activities, even though there is no law that deals directly with the impact of social media and Web 2.0 in the workplace.

This is according to ICT analysts, who say communications placed in the public domain that defame or bring employers into disrepute can lead to the dismissal of individuals.

Deshanta Naidoo, content manager at the social and mobile media company Cerebra, says: "Just as an employee would be held responsible for harassing statements made verbally in the workplace, this legislation governs employees outside of the workplace as well."

What's more, the use of technology means that "unlike verbal comments, Web entries can be located and linked back to you, making it just a tad harder to deny".

Also, comments or actions that place an employer in a bad light can be prosecuted.

"Employees must be aware of the fact that, whether they are posting entries on social Web sites at the office or on their own time, if those entries harm their employer's reputation or cause a tarnishing of the workplace, the employer has a legal right to mete out appropriate discipline," says Naidoo.

Paul Jacobson, of Jacobson Attorneys, says, while employers do not have carte blanche to dictate what their employees do in their own time, there is a very fine line to be drawn with social networking.

Referring to employees, for example, placing provocative photos of themselves on social media profiles that include their employer's name, he says "it is possible that a combination of the pictures, the prominence of the reference to the employer and the nature of the employee's job could bring the employer into disrepute and give rise to some sort of internal process to address that".

He also points out that social networking sites like Facebook make embarrassing employee behaviour easier to find.

"Take into account the possibility that an employee could rank higher on Google than the employer for whatever reason and you could find negative associations with the company via an employee's blog or profile taking precedence over the company's carefully worded profile on its Web site", he explains.

Naidoo suggests that companies need to proactively change their workplace policies to cover issues like the uptake of Web 2.0 to mitigate the chance that they can be defamed online. This is because there is, according to her, "no direct new media policies in SA to govern the use of social media networking sites".

Also, just as companies can be held responsible for degrading comments in the workplace if they did not put a stop to it, "so too can they potentially be found liable for failing to put a stop to similar types of comments that are occurring on sites like Facebook if they knew or aught to have known they were being made".