12 Nov 2008

Social-networking sites are an increasingly common element of pre-employment screening, now it seems employers are using those same sites to keep an eye on employees’ behaviour whilst in their employment.

The latest example is Virgin Atlantic who recently sacked 13 flight attendants for posting derogatory messages about Virgin and its passengers on the social-networking website Facebook. The posts joked that Virgin jets were “bangers” with faulty engines, that its aeroplanes were cockroach infested and that its passengers were “chavs”.

Virgin is not the only employer to face the same issue. Both Waitrose and Argos have reportedly dismissed employees for criticising them on social networking websites.

Virgin launched an investigation into the allegations and then subsequently sacked the cabin crew involved. Many businesses already find it difficult to battle the increasing number of websites who offer anyone in cyber space the opportunity to post negative online reviews and blogs in an attempt to destroy their brand image. The potential harm is even greater when it comes from an employee as it can give greater legitimacy to those comments – Virgin was particularly keen to repudiate the allegations of health and safety and hygiene issues on Virgin aeroplanes.

In the event employees are found to be publishing harmful comments about their employer on social-networking websites, businesses can rely on either express provisions in employment contracts which restrict employees from doing so or argue that the mutual duty of “trust and confidence” between employer and employee implied into their employment contracts has been breached.

The difficulty for Virgin is that by firing the offending employees, the surrounding publicity has meant that the unfavourable remarks have reached an audience that is far wider than the cabin crew’s online social network.

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