Apple 'fires employee' for critical Facebook posting: Were they right to?

Summary:Apple reportedly fired a retail store employee after they posted negative comments about the company on Facebook. Was Apple right to do so?

A UK employment tribunal reportedly upheld the sacking firing of an Apple retail store employee, who posted negative comments about the stores on the social network Facebook.

A supposed 'friend' showed the post to the store manager, who subsequently let the hapless employee go. Despite posting the negative comment as 'private', the employee appealed to an employment tribunal after being sacked for "gross misconduct".

But was Apple in the right, or should it have issued a stern warning? It's 'this old chestnut' once again.

(Source: Flickr, CC)

The Cupertino-based company has a series of serious brands to maintain, and clearly employees put their hearts and souls into maintaining that image. The brand, arguably, is what makes Apple what it is -- a global giant for which tens, if not hundreds of millions around the world have utter adoration for.

But the company has strict social media rules to protect its commercial reputation, and forbids the posting of any negative comments on any social media site or social network.

According to the initial report, Apple "made it absolutely plain throughout the induction process that commentary on Apple products, or critical remarks about the brand, were strictly prohibited".

The UK employment tribunal, according to CNET, upheld the firing because it ruled that posting even a seemingly private comment "does not give privacy protection", therefore, "Apple successfully argued that it was justified and proportionate to limit this right (of posting) in order to protect its commercial reputation against potentially damaging posts."

If this is the case, then any communication, whether verbal, written or electronically published, could be seen as 'not private', breaking the rules wide open for potential abuse by employers.

Companies can often be left in difficult territory when social media rules are not defined. A recent Cisco study suggests that amongst the Generation Y, two-thirds of college students will ask about social media policies during a job interview, with over half not accepting a job that bans social media in the workplace.

Social media is a tricky one to control. Anybody could copy and paste, and then tag -- or not, if one were to be clandestine about it -- and repost a comment; something which in itself leads to the spread of viral activity.

Many have been caught out by social media, particularly when it comes down to commenting on their jobs or colleagues. It was only during the summer where the U.S. National Labor Relations Board had to contend with a series of cases where employees were fired over Facebook.

But the rules between the U.S. and the UK are different. Had this case presented itself in 'the land of the free', perhaps the outcome would have been different. A settlement earlier this year led to a ruling whereby employees could not be disciplined by their employers over the content they post on Facebook.

For younger people, however, the divide between a 'personal Facebook' and a 'work Facebook' is yet to be differentiated. Ultimately, company policies need to be put in place to ensure that all employees are not only aware of social media risks, but also the brands they represent inside and outside of the workplace.

Related:

Topics: Social Enterprise, Apple

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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