Social media policies were once a rarity among workplace policy suites. Experience and time have changed the policy landscape and social media policies are now commonplace - and for good reason. A recent case highlights an interesting dilemma and provides some guidance on the acceptable extent or reach of a workplace social media policy. In Malcolm Pearson v Linfox Australia Pty Ltd  FWC 446, Mr Pearson, a distribution centre employee, had a history of workplace policy breaches. His employment with Linfox was eventually terminated for multiple policy breaches and he brought an unfair dismissal claim.
The final policy breach was Mr Pearson’s refusal to sign an acknowledgement that he had read and understood Linfox’s social media policy. Mr Pearson had attended a social media group training session but refused to sign the attendance sheet. After a follow up one on one training session he still refused to sign the policy acknowledgement. Mr Pearson took issue with the policy apparently because he felt it constrained his freedom of speech outside of work.
Social media policies apply inside and outside the workplace
The Commissioner noted that although an employer cannot generally control employees’ out of hours activities, a social media policy that dealt with social media use solely in the workplace would be an anomaly. The purposes of a social media policy are variously to protect the employer, the business and employees. Policy guidelines to prohibit inappropriate or damaging social media conduct must apply to social media use both inside and outside of work, if they are to be effective.
In an interesting twist, Linfox were involved in an earlier high profile social media case and were criticised in those proceedings for failing to have a social media policy in place. On a quite different set of facts, the earlier decision involved an employee making various derogatory and inappropriate comments about other employees on his Facebook page.
Understandably, Linfox now have a social media policy; employees are required to attend training and also to sign an acknowledgement that they have read and understood the social media policy. The issue this time around was that the employee refused to comply with the policy requirements and sign the acknowledgement.
On the facts of the case, it was held that Linfox were justified in requiring Mr Pearson to sign the social media policy acknowledgement. The application, for unfair dismissal, was dismissed.
Lesson for employers
Social media policies are a commonplace and well-accepted component of a good policy suite. This recent case clearly acknowledges the legitimacy and utility of social media policies to protect business reputation and security, to set clear expectations for employees and to control excessive social media use at work. Achieving these aims requires reasonable restrictions of social media use both within and outside the workplace.
For BlandsLaw’s practical tips on best practice social media policies, click here.
Sarah Waterhouse, Solicitor, BlandsLaw
Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net