12th February 2015

Combat The Troll In Your Workplace: Social Media Issues for Employers

Troll: an ugly, cave-dwelling creature depicted as either a giant or a dwarf

Troll (internet): one who posts a deliberately provocative message on a social media forum with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

The terms “troll”, “trolling” and “trolled” are being increasingly used in the media.  More frequently these terms relate to the latter definition above (although the recent Hobbit trilogy has perhaps caused some confusion given its reference to the former).  In any case, employers should be aware of the existence of any “trolls” within the workplace and, where appropriate, should be educating staff and taking action in relation to such issues.

Why should employers care about trolls in the workplace?

Increasing use of social media by individuals has resulted in some high profile employment tribunal cases.  An employer can be held vicariously liable for harassment or “trolling” which is caused by one of its employees.  This means that any employee who has been subject to unwanted conduct within the course of employment by a “troll” colleague could raise a claim against his or her employer.  This situation could arise even when the employer is unaware of the troll’s existence or online activity.

How can employers combat these trolls?

Employers should, as a minimum, take three steps to protect against such issues:

  • Create clear guidelines: If not already in existence, employers should create a social media policy.  This policy should address what use of social media is not permitted, at what times social media sites can be accessed by employees, whether commenting about the employer is permitted, whether such sites can be used for business development purposes and, if so, who is in charge.  Employers should also ensure that staff handbooks include examples of social media-related misconduct within the definition of gross misconduct.
  • Take disciplinary action, where appropriate: Employers who discover any social media misuse which has an impact on the workplace should take appropriate action against the offending trolls.  Employers who historically turn a blind eye to social media misconduct will be criticised by an employment tribunal for taking action in the future.
  • Be consistent: Employers should avoid a knee jerk reaction when responding to social media misconduct.  Instead employers should treat each incident on a case by case basis however should take into account the following factors when deciding what disciplinary action (if any) is appropriate:- whether the employer has a social media policy in place; the nature and seriousness of the alleged misuse; any previous warnings for similar misconduct; actual or potential damage caused to customer or client relationships.

Trolls can be deadly to their opponents.  Internet trolls can be costly for their employer.

If in doubt about internet trolls, employers should take legal advice.  Every employment lawyer will confirm that it is far cheaper to take pre-emptive legal advice about such issues beforedisciplinary action rather than to resort to reactive legal advice after dismissal when faced with an employment tribunal claim.

Unfortunately Blackadders is unable to give any useful advice about other type of trolls.

Simon Allison
Partner – Employment Law

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