Firing staff through social media legal but risky

update Terminating employees through social media or text messages may be legal, but lawyer cautions these could bring on potential lawsuits from disgruntled ex-employees.

update Terminating employees through social media or SMS could count as written notices, making them legal, said a lawyer. However, employers need to be aware of the implications.

This issue came to prominence after U.K. Daily Mail reported what was believed to be the first job termination through Facebook in Britain. In March, a teenager found out she was fired from her job through a Facebook message.

In an e-mail interview, Singapore-based Jenny Tsin, joint head of WongPartnership's employment practice, said there are no decided cases on the issue locally and employers need to follow the termination procedures outlined in employment contracts.

"Typical contracts would state that written notice needs to be given," Tsin said. Messages sent through social media or SMS can "possibly" count as written notices under Singapore's Interpretation Act and the Electronic Transactions Act, she added.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Tan Peng Chin, managing director of Singapore-based law firm Tan Peng Chin LLC, similarly agreed that electronic messages sent through social media and SMS can count as written notices.

However, he pointed out that termination should follow what was outlined in the contract. Additionally, if the recipient did not see the message either through social media or SMS due to, for example, phone lines being jammed, the result of the termination could be controversial.

When contacted, a spokesperson from Singapore's Ministry of Manpower was unable to comment but pointed ZDNet Asia to the ministry's Web page outlining details on the termination of contract of service.

In an e-mail interview, Allison Baird, Singapore country manager for recruitment process outsourcing firm Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS), said that face-to-face is almost always the best way for employees to receive news of their termination.

Adding to that, Tsin said that telling an employee he has been fired through a social media platform or text message may not be confidential and is not the most sensitive way to deal with termination. She noted that this could open up potential lawsuits from employees.

"An employee who [has] received such a notice publicly, for example on [his or her] Facebook wall, may claim that the notice has defamed [him or her]," she said. "And if such a claim was successfully brought, it could result in damages being paid to the defamed employee."

Even if the employer wins the case, there would still be negative publicity following as ex-employees are likely to make disparaging remarks about the employer, she added.

Best practices for employee termination
Terminations need to be handled sensitively for the benefit of both the employer and employee, pointed out Tsin.

Tan added that terminations are serious matters and it is good practice to provide a hard copy of the termination notice so as not to add insult to injury.

AMS' Baird said that handling terminations in a sensitive way not only helps those who are being let go, but also their co-workers who will inevitably feel the impact. "This can, in turn, help protect the company brand," she added.

However, should an employer feel the need to inform an employee quickly about his termination, and the only way is through social media or SMS, the company should carry this out "in the most private and confidential manner and follow up with proper written termination or a face-to-face chat with the employee", said Tsin.

Baird added that companies need to construct a proper termination policy. "Having your termination procedures embedded in a written policy is vital, and ideally over time, that becomes instilled in an organization's performance culture.

"These practices must become a part of workplace protocols. In other words, this is not something that should be taken lightly and people managers in particular need to be equipped with the skills to drive performance and have those often challenging discussions," she added.

Managers as well as human resource officers need to be trained to handle termination situations, said Baird, adding that skills such as the ability to listen attentively and respond to employee distress without coming over as defensive and insensitive are required.


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