A blog post just in time for some downtime over the holiday – when can personal tweets become grounds for termination? Some of you may remember when in August of 2013 Canadian news outlets were a-buzz with the termination of two Toronto Firefighters for sexist comments made on Twitter. For a media report on the details of the tweets and reactions, click here.
While the tweets were made off-duty, and not in reference to anything work related, management got involved partly because the Firefighters in question identified themselves as such on their Twitter profiles. The conduct was deemed to be in violation of employer policies, including their Social Media Policy, damaging to the reputation of Toronto Fire and ultimately worthy of termination.
Both individuals grieved their terminations, asking for their jobs back. These two cases are a good example of when tweets can amount to grounds for termination and when reinstatement may be ordered.
For the first case, Arbitrator Elaine Newman upheld the termination of Matt Bowman, a 2.5 year Firefighter and the worst offender. She found his tweets, which turned out to be numerous, were offensive and damaging to the reputation of the employer. She was unsatisfied with his apology and she concluded that Bowman had failed to appreciate the high standards required of a Firefighter. Given this, his continued employment was untenable. For her decision see: Toronto (City) v Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, Local 3888, 2014 CanLII 76886 (ON LA).
Firefighter Lawaun Edwards fared better. Arbitartor Gail Misra substituted his termination with a three day unpaid suspension (this can only be done in a unionized context in Canada). Arbitrator Misra considered many factors, among them that the employer’s Social Media Policy was not well publicized and that the tweet was not directed at anyone in the workplace. She gave weight to the fact that Firefighter Edwards’ apologies were numerous and sincere and that his conduct was at the low end of unacceptable behaviour. For her decision see: Toronto Professional Firefighters Association, Local 3888 v Grievance of Lawaun Edwards, 2014 CanLII 62879 (ON LA).
What should employers take away from this? Make sure that your organization has a well publicized social media policy and that employees are clear with respect to what your expectations are for their off duty conduct. The impact of online comments on reputational damage increasingly pulls in off-duty conduct.