How to handle employee’s offensive social media post

Ileaa Swift, owner of Swift Travel Deals, fired one of her agents after her online posts cost the company business.

When one of Ileaa Swift’s employees posted homophobic comments on Facebook, the reaction was quick.

“It posted around 1 in the morning. The next morning, when I got up, I had all these calls and emails and hate mail,” says Swift, owner of Swift Travel Deals in Little Rock, Ark.

Whether it’s comments about news events, long-held beliefs or a bad joke, an employee’s offensive posts on social media sites can damage a company’s image and profits. If the comments are racist, homophobic, sexist or against a religious group, tolerating discriminatory comments puts an employer at risk for lawsuits and losing customers.

Small businesses are typically unprepared when they are thrust into the spotlight in such a negative way. While many large companies have social media policies, small companies often don’t.

Superstar or not: When Swift’s staffer posted her comments on the agency’s Facebook page last fall, Swift warned her to stop. “They didn’t agree with what we stand for,” Swift says.

The staffer persisted, moving her comments to her own page. Her online arguments with people enraged by her posts cost the company business, including bookings from gay and lesbian clients. Swift fired her.

Act: Employers must take disciplinary action when they learn about posts containing language attacking people for their race, sexual orientation, gender or religion, says employment lawyer Nicholas Woodfield. If the worker isn’t fired, employers can be sued under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

“You are required by law to maintain a diverse and respectful workplace,” Woodfield says.

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Get help: While clearly dis- criminatory posts can be grounds for dismissal, owners still need to be sure they’re on solid legal ground, says Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, a human resources provider.

He recommends employers consult HR providers or employment law attorneys. Lawsuits are expensive, and if a court determines a termination was wrongful, the costs could be crippling. Comments on social media aren’t always grounds for dismissal. For example, a man whose wife just filed for divorce posts, “I hate women.” A court might call that venting, not discrimination.

Make a policy: HR professionals and employment lawyers recommend written social media policies.

“They need to have some guidelines (for employees) out there,” attorney Woodfield says.

Swift has changed her social media policy so staffers can’t post on the company’s page. She also monitors their personal pages. “I do make sure that there’s nothing there that would be detrimental to our company,” she says.