ACCI economist stood down over Facebook comments: Can you fire an employee for having a rant on social media?

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s chief economist has been stood down over allegations he made offensive comments on social media, bringing the pitfalls of online communication once again into the spotlight.

Economist Burchell Wilson allegedly called Treasurer Joe Hockey a “fat little bastard” on his Facebook account and also made inappropriate comments about refugees, Muslims and people living with disabilities, according to Fairfax.

In a statement, ACCI chief executive Kate Carnell said she was aware of a number of “derogatory and completely unacceptable Facebook posts” made by Wilson.

“After learning of the matter I spoke to Mr Wilson and directed him to stand-down from his position pending a thorough investigation,” Carnell said.

Carnell stressed the ACCCI is taking the matter “very seriously” and will allow Wilson to respond to the allegations before further action is taken.

However, Wilson has told the Herald Sun he was the victim of hacking and is taking legal advice.

So what is the best way to respond to inappropriate comments by an employee on social media, and can you terminate their employment because of it?

Giri Sivaraman, employment law principal at Maurice Blackburn, told SmartCompany the distinction between private and professional life is greatly eroded due to the advent of social media, but says an employer’s right to fire a staff member over comments on social media depends on the role of the person and their seniority in the organisation.

“I think if a person is quite senior and is commenting on social media about matters that are directly related to their employment and negatively affect their employer, then an employer probably has the right to take action against the employee,” says Sivaraman.

“However, for a small business, I think it would depend very much on the nature of the social media comments and whether it had any impact at all on the business.”

Sivaraman says it also depends on whether the social media posts were made before or during a person’s course of employment with a business.

“If at the time they made the comments they were not employed, then they weren’t under those obligations to the employer,” he says.

“The one difficulty in all of this is what people don’t sometimes realise is social media is permanent. Once the comment is made on a web-based program it is very hard to ever retrieve it and stop it once it’s gone.”

Martin Nally, managing director of HR Anywhere, told SmartCompany it is important for employers to determine where they stand on the issue of employees posting inappropriate content on social media.

“They must have a policy and an approach to this,” says Nally.

“What’s our social media approach going to be, what will we encourage our people to do? There needs to be a process of having a procedure to advise, train and communicate to employees that this is the position.”

Nally says employers should encourage their staff to think before they act on social media. A good approach is to imagine what the response would be if the comments or images made it onto the front page of a newspaper.

“If those comments were actually spoken in the workplace, would they be regarded as acceptable?” he says.

But Nally says where it is clear an employee has acted inappropriately, action should be taken.

“Appropriate counselling and appropriate actions need to be taken where people are acting inappropriately. It is totally unacceptable for someone to be deriding a race, religion and someone’s appearance,” he says.

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