Social Media in the Office

Comments on social media are quick and casual—but they’re also recorded documents that can have significant consequences

For some Vancouverites the 2011 Stanley Cup riot was a turning point in the use of social media. Rioters posed amid the mayhem for cellphone photos and posted them to social media accounts, where outraged citizens identified them for police. Many rioters were charged or convicted with the help of those photos.
That social media could have such social force came as a revelation. Yet many people today still ignore the fact that when it comes to the workplace, social media can also have serious consequences. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have become common communication tools in today’s workplace, and employers are finding they need sound social media policies to mitigate the risks. Here are some key issues to consider.
It’s crucial to understand that information posted on social media is just as real as information in paper or electronic documents. Just ask “J.T.” and “A.P.,” two Vancouver employees who were fired in 2010 after their manager—a Facebook “friend”—read threatening comments on their Facebook pages. The firings were upheld by the Labour Relations Board, which said the postings had the same effect as if the threats had been made in the workplace.
Because social media are so pervasive, any business must consider them when drafting privacy, communication and document preservation policies. Posting confidential business information can breach a confidentiality obligation. Posting information about legal advice can waive lawyer-client privilege. Social media posts are “documents” that must be preserved and, if relevant, disclosed to the other parties in a lawsuit.
On an individual level, employees have to be aware that social media leave a permanent record, and should resist the temptation to tweet or post information they would never otherwise commit to a written record. The consequences can be devastating, as was seen when Ron Herbert, Ian Toothill and Dayleen van Ryswyk, the provincial Conservative and NDP candidates in last year’s provincial election were fired or resigned after commenting about Christy Clark, Adolf Hitler and First Nations on Twitter and a blog.
Social media also can be a useful tool in business lawsuits. In 2013, former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was permitted by a B.C. court to serve documents in his defamation lawsuit by messages to the accounts on which the defendants had posted their allegedly defamatory comments. Courts in Canada, the U.K. and Australia have permitted service of documents beginning lawsuits, and applying for court orders, through Facebook and Twitter. If you have a dispute with someone who’s hard to find, off-shore or evading service, this is worth bearing in mind.
Social media have become pervasive in life, and business. As with other new technologies, business should ask “How can I use this?” and “What are its risks?” and respond appropriately.


Stephen Antle is a senior partner and dispute strategist in the Vancouver office of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.