UK: The Rise Of Social Media And The Impact On The Employment Relationship

Last Updated: 22 September 2011
Article by Christopher Middleton


The exponential growth of social media in recent years has changed the way employees network and share data, with positive and negative implications for the employer/employee relationship. Whilst social media presents employers and employees with a wealth of opportunities and benefits as a new communication channel, it also gives employees a forum enabling them to speak much more quickly and with greater impact, whether they are bad-mouthing their employers or making derogatory comments about colleagues.

So how can employers in a "socially-networked" world:

  • manage employees' use of social media sites (where use is excessive, inappropriate and/or leads to loss of productivity)?
  • monitor employees' use of social networks without infringing their privacy?
  • protect themselves against vicarious liability for employees' postings on social media sites?

Employees' use of social media sites

Employees' use of social media sites may be inappropriate if, for example, their use of these sites during working hours is excessive and affecting productivity or because the content uploaded is inappropriate. Employers may be able to discipline (or even dismiss) employees in these circumstances, but the theme that emerges from the cases to date is the importance of the employer's response being proportionate and being based on clear guidelines.

The case of Taylor v Somerfield concerned the dismissal of an employee who had posted a video on YouTube which showed him and a colleague play-fighting with Somerfield plastic bags. He was dismissed for bringing the company into disrepute. The Tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair as there was no evidence that the video had brought the company into disrepute. The video had only been viewed 8 times, and 3 of those occasions were by the employee's managers who were investigating the matter. Put another way, the employer's response (dismissal) was disproportionate.

In contrast, the dismissal of a pub manager employee who had made inappropriate remarks on Facebook about two of the pub's customers was found to be fair (Preece v JD Wetherspoons). The comments had been made during the manager's working time and were in breach of Wetherspoons' policy which provided that Wetherspoons could take disciplinary action against an employee should an employee's postings on Facebook be found to lower the reputation of the organisation. In this case, the employer benefited from having a clear policy which it could point to.

Employees' use of social media sites and privacy issues

Another consideration for employers is where the divide lies between its interests and an employee's private life.

Pay v United Kingdom considered the dismissal of a probation officer because of his links to a business involved in sadomasochistic activities. Mr Pay argued that his dismissal breached his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In this case it was found the dismissal was justified partly because of the individual's job, which involved working with sex offenders. However, without such a justification, it is possible that the court might have come to a different conclusion. Similar considerations will apply if an employer wants to dismiss an employer as a result of information it discovers about them online.

In a similar vein, monitoring of an employee's use of social media sites should be proportionate to the perceived risk in order to avoid a disproportionate infringement of the employee's privacy. The employer should also consider whether there are less invasive ways of checking that the employee is not acting inappropriately and should have a policy explaining its approach to monitoring. A full discussion of the legal considerations for an employer when undertaking monitoring are beyond the scope of this article, but please let us know if you would like further advice on this issue.

Employers also need to take care when using researching job applicants online as this is an area which could also create potential liabilities if a candidate felt that they had been discriminated against and/or pre-judged because of information viewed by a prospective employer on social media sites such as Facebook. Employers should bear in mind that such information may not all have been posted by the employee and may not necessarily be up to date or accurate.

Liability for employees' posting on social media sites

It is established law that an employer may be liable for discriminatory acts carried out by their employees. This principle is set out in the Equality Act 2010 which provides that an act done by a person "in the course of their employment" is treated as also having been done by their employer. Case law makes clear that the phrase "in the course of employment" is construed broadly and can include acts which took place outside the workplace (for example at after work drinks).

A second potential area of liability is under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which provides that a person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he knows or ought reasonably to know amounts to harassment of the other. Although that Act was introduced to deal with stalking, employees have used it to bring claims about bullying in the workplace.

Importantly for employers, they can in principle be held liable for certain acts done by their employees, including acts of discrimination or bullying. It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine an employer being found liable for, for example, Facebook postings by an employee making discriminatory remarks about a colleague, or for cyber-bullying of one employee by another. The risk would be most significant if the postings occurred during work time, but could also arising for postings outside working hours if the only reason that the two people have a connection is because they work together.

There is also the risk that employees will use social media sites to post negative or damaging comments or air grievances about their employers online or leak confidential information online. According to a survey by the recruitment agency, 40% of UK employees admit criticising their employers on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In a recent case, the Industrial Tribunal of Brussels ordered a former employee who circulated information via LinkedIn about the strategy and policies of his former employer to pay damages of €2,500 to the company. However, in contrast, the National Labor Relations Board in the United States recently intervened in a case in which an employee was dismissed for criticising her employer on Facebook, saying the action infringed the rights of employees to discuss working conditions amongst themselves. It will be interesting to see what the UK courts decide in relation to this issue.

Employers can manage these risks to some extent by controlling employees' use of social media sites and by having appropriate policies and procedures in place regarding acceptable usage, reinforced by appropriate training.

Managing the risks

So what should employers do in response to all of these risks? One option is to ban employees completely from accessing social media sites at work. Many employers will consider this excessive, and some may even want their employees to use certain sites for business purposes, for example tweeting about recent developments in their industry. An alternative is to put limits on employees' use of social media sites.

Assuming that employees are given at least some access to social media sites, it is advisable to have guidelines in place as to its usage. Amongst other things, these should:

  • specify to what extent employees can access such sites, and when, including business and personal use;
  • make clear that employees should not disparage customers, suppliers, employees etc on such sites;
  • make clear that employees should not disclose confidential information or trade secrets;
  • clarify the consequences of any breach;
  • confirm that the employer reserves the right to monitor employees' use of email and internet including access to social media sites; and
  • make clear that employees should not hold themselves out as speaking on behalf of the company unless authorised to do so.

The advantages of introducing a social media policy are that it should make it less likely in practice that employees will act inappropriately when using social media and make it easier to take action against them if they do. Having a policy will also make it easier for the employer to argue that it should not be liable for the inappropriate actions of its employees because it has taken steps to prevent these.

Of course, it is not enough simply to have such a policy. Employers should communicate its existence to employees, implement appropriate training and take steps to monitor compliance with it and if necessary to enforce it.

Finally, all employers should carry out a risk assessment in relation to employees' usage of social media and should review the need for guidance and policies for their staff so that the risks have been flagged to employees and rules regarding acceptable conduct have been made clear. This lays a clear path for any employer needing to take disciplinary or other action in the event of a breach.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.