A reminder of the perils of social media by Victoria Bunnell, Fraser Brown solicitors

A partner in a law firm recently sent a message to a barrister via LinkedIn in which he stated: ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture.’ He continued: ‘You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.’ The barrister who had received the message responded by calling his email ‘unacceptable and misogynistic,’ and posted the exchange on Twitter, where it has come to the attention of the media.

Although it appears likely that the partner in question did not intend for his comments to be interpreted in a negative light, it is clear that they caused offence to the recipient of the email, on the basis that she was using LinkedIn for business purposes, rather than to be approached about her physical appearance. The barrister made clear that she found the comments to be sexist, and commented that ‘The eroticisation of women’s physical appearance is a way of exercising power over women. It silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject.’ Since posting the exchange on Twitter, the barrister has received positive responses from other Twitter users, with many women commenting that they have had similar experiences. Both employers and employees should be aware that such comments are capable of amounting to sex discrimination and/or harassment.

This incident serves as a timely reminder to both employees and employers to be very careful what they post on Social Media forums, either publicly or privately. Comments made by employees on Social Media can leave employers vicariously liable for discrimination claims on the basis of the actions of their employees. As a separate point, employers can suffer significant reputational damage if clients and customers become aware of comments made by employees that they find distasteful or offensive.

This story serves a useful reminder of the power of social media, and the damage that misguided or discriminatory comments made by members of staff can do to a business, even when these comments are made in a setting which the employee in question may believe to be private. Businesses should ensure that they have a Social Media policy in place providing guidance to employees on their use of Social Media, both in a work and in a private context. Putting such a policy in place should provide at least some protection against the legal and reputational consequences of ill-advised comments, and ensure that employers are able to deal with such issues as a disciplinary matter should the circumstances warrant it.