What to do when an employee insults you on social media

Last month, it was reported that Canadian Pacific Railway conductor Stephanie Katelnikoff had been fired for a second time, this time over her social media posts.

According to the CBC, Katelnikoff was previously fired after a Banff derailment, but was later reinstated after she was cleared of fault and filed a wrongful dismissal suit. This time, CPR reportedly dismissed her after deeming her posts “inappropriate” and “graphic.” Some of these were “sexually suggestive” images taken with Katelnikoff posing on train tracks. In others, she criticized CPR and its management.

In a statement to the CBC, CPR said: “Railway safety is a top priority at CP. Ms. Katelnikoff’s termination related to her decision to post photos of herself in unsafe situations on railway property and equipment, committing railway safety violations, along with disparaging remarks regarding the company.”

We can’t tackle all topics, so we’ll leave the unsafe sexy photos to another pundit. But the story raises a good question about what an employer is to do when someone is insulting or complaining about them or their organization on social media. How should you handle personal attacks, or attacks against your company? Obviously it depends on the severity of the attack or insult. But there are still certain steps one can follow that will likely lead to a positive outcome in most cases.  Here they are.

1. Speak to the employee. Don’t let the issue fester, or start discussing it around the office. Speak to the employee first. Immediately summon that person to your office and discuss things.

2. Be direct, and kind. Open with a compliment or kind statement. Don’t let your temper get the better of you or behave in an angry manner. S/he who gets mad first loses – always. Thank the employee for coming to see you, and say something about how much you appreciate their contribution to your organization. Then state that it’s come to your attention that the employee has posted negative comments about you and/or the company on social media, and that you would like to talk about that.

3. Invite the person to share their reasons for doing what they did. While there is pretty much no excuse for insulting one’s employer on social media, this could still be a learning opportunity for you. Maybe there is something you could change about your own behaviour or your company’s management style.

4. Stress that this is unacceptable behaviour from a team member, and this sort of action has impact. This is the most important point. Many people give no thought to and have zero understanding of the impact of their online actions. The physical distance from the subject makes them feel like their actions have no effect, and only when confronted do they realize it has one. They don’t mean to be hurtful. The right to be offensive or hurtful or to insult their boss on social media isn’t usually the hill they want to die on. They just didn’t think about it. And when they realize that they have been caught, they are contrite, and/or scared.

So, sometimes, simply letting someone know that their action was observed and that there has been a reaction is enough. In many cases, you’ll probably find that the employee apologizes, and doesn’t do it again.

5. Let it go. It depends on how offensive, insulting, or inflammatory the post is, but if it’s not overly any of these – and not violent – and if the employee is good at their job, you might want to just let it go at this.

Thank the person for their time and understanding and move on.

6. Or consider letting the employee go. If the person is defiant or unapologetic, or it happens again, then you have an issue on your hands. And you might have to consider letting the person go. If you’re wondering whether you can legally do so, we agree that the law surrounding these types of issues is always unclear in Canada. According to Shields, O’Donnell, Mackillop LLP, Labour & Employment Law for Business, some of the factors that arbitrators consider when assessing terminations for social media include the following:

  • Damage to the business (including reputational damage)
  • Damage to the operation of the workplace
  • Whether the posts constituted threats
  • Frequency and duration of inappropriate posts
  • Uncooperativeness or defiance when confronted
  • Honesty or remorse
  • Whether the posts were provoked by a superior
  • Whether the posts disclose confidential information
  • Whether the posts were made during working hours

That article addresses a wider range of inappropriate posts, which may have nothing to do with your business, and points to the case of two Toronto firefighters who were dismissed because of racist and sexist tweets. If you’re facing something similar, many of these steps still apply.

7. Consult legal counsel. Your own legal counsel can guide you in a specific case.

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