Top 5 employee risks on social media

Craig Rodney Submitted by on the 23rd of August 2016

You’ve probably read a few stories about someone who was fired for posting something online that they shouldn’t have. It happens almost every day now, from unsavoury comments to unauthorised photos, employees regularly commit offences online that land them and their employers in hot water.

A social media policy isn’t enough to prevent these things from happening. The key to managing the risks begins with being fully informed about what they are. Here’s our top five:

  1. Defamation

Take care before you swear, use anyone’s name in vain, or say anything unpleasant about your employer or other employees. There are a number of cases where people have lost their jobs because they wrote derogatory remarks on social media.

If you say something that can be viewed by more than one person, the comment could be seen as defamatory if a reasonable person understands the words to convey a meaning that is derogatory or defamatory. Your only defence in such a situation is if you can prove that the words were both true AND in the public interest.

Even if you didn’t mean to be spiteful or you were ‘just joking’ and made a comment that can be seen to be derogatory, the courts can still punish you.

Think more than twice about posting anything negative or controversial on social media and remember that court cases have found the following:

  • You don’t have to be the original poster. Just sharing (or retweeting) defamatory content can make you liable
  • If someone tags you in a defamatory post you are just as liable unless you attempted to extricate yourself
  • A series of posts can be seen as defamatory in context with one another
  • If the posts are not kept private, they are held to be in the public domain and this makes you liable
  1. Harassment

Online harassment comes in many forms – cyberbullying, shaming, hate speech or malicious actions which impact on another person’s dignity. South African laws have been introduced to protect people from harassment: the Protection from Harassment Act will grant a protection order just based on face value assessment of harassment charges. Harassment can take place in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at a person, whether or not words are exchanged.

Hate speech takes defamation and harassment to a whole new level and is defined as “any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.”

The Films and Publications Amendment Bill is hoping to fine R150 000 or imprison anyone who is found guilty of hate speech and, while the Bill is yet to be put into law, there are already grave consequences for people who use social media for hate speech.

Not only could it potentially lose you a job, crush your reputation and impact on your future, but you could face fines and public vitriol. In South Africa it can see criminal charges filed and the judicial system is ready to take on anyone whose online actions fit the bill.

  1. Breach of confidence

When you work for a business, you are obliged to keep information secure and private.

If you post company confidential information onto social media, you are in breach of confidence and can be taken to court on criminal charges. Ensure you are aware of your organisation’s social media regulations and don’t email, tweet, post or send out any information which could be considered the private intellectual property of the organisation or its clients.

Any online discussion about a campaign, a new product, a new client, a deal, a new working relationship, a new connection or general comments about the work you are doing could and most likely would breach that contract. Don’t do it.

  1. Copyright infringement

One of the primary challenges around social media usage is copyright and trademark infringement. If you post pictures, images and videos onto social media platforms without permission from the company or copyright holder, you are infringing copyright.

If you use content or articles which belong to an organisation and post it to social media without permission, it is content copyright infringement. If you break this law, you are liable to fines, prison sentences and you will probably ruin your career and reputation.

Make sure you are aware of all your company’s regulations in this regard as some organisations count all emails, social correspondence and content created during your time on their property as their own, well, property. So, make sure you always credit, attribute and cite anything you post which is not yours. If you don’t credit your sources, copyright infringement accusations could come knocking at your door – or that of your employer. If you steal photographs from the internet and post them on your Facebook page, you or your employer could be breaking the copyright infringement law.

  1. Privacy

Everyone has the right to be left alone if they choose to. It’s a constitutional right and if you invade someone’s rights by posting private information about them, you can be penalised. But remember that the idea of privacy on the internet is blurry. Even if you put private information about yourself out there, from the moment you press that ‘send’ button, that information is no longer private. But further to that, you are not allowed to publish – which includes tweeting or posting – the names of parties to a divorce action, minors or victims of sexual offences. (We wrote an eBook about the South African Protection of Personal Information Act which covers this in more detail – check it out here.)

While these are the five most common employee social media mistakes, they are not the only ones. Be sure to educate yourself and your employees to ensure a ‘simple mistake’ does not end up ruining reputations and costing millions.

Cerebra’s social media academy directly solves this problem for employers. For more information download the free Cerebra Academy info pack from