ASK A LAWYER: What are the rules governing social media in the workplace?

Confidentiality and criticism are the two biggest issues

Timothy N Sullivan Ottawa lawyer answers questions

Ah, social media.  So many ways to share and interact with friends, family and colleagues; so many ways to get yourself in trouble at work.  As social media has become more prevalent among all age groups, the role of social media in the workplace has resulted in an increased number of court cases.  However, the relatively recent rise in social media means that there are few hard and fast rules in law (yet).

Frequently, public criticism of an employer or supervisor in what some may consider ‘private’ revelations in social media can have serious repercussions, from disciplinary action to termination.

Generally speaking, an employer may have a social media policy or a policy to govern employees behaviour during the time that they are at work.  As a general rule, engaging in personal social media activity should be avoided during work hours; during off hours, employees are allowed to engage in social media activity in any way they see fit so long as it is legal.

However, employers do have an interest in how employees conduct themselves during their off hours, if that conduct has a negative impact on the employer’s, or co-workers’, reputation or if public comments are interpreted as being abusive or defamatory.

Employees should avoid revealing confidential company information – even if it hasn’t specifically been identified as ‘top secret’ or covered in an NDA – in a public forum such as social media channels.  Confidential company information includes (but isn’t limited to) things like client lists and contact information, intellectual property, disciplinary actions involving co-workers, proprietary processes, or business decisions which might be of value to a competitor.  Criticism of an employer, co-worker, and the employer’s customers/clients should also be avoided in social media (and other public, online forums).

Discretion is the better part of valor

When it comes to social media in the workplace – as with so many things – discretion is the better part of valor.  A good basic policy is simply not to mix ‘work’ with ‘personal outside interests’, including social media.  Sometimes people from work will intersect with your personal life, and that’s fine; however, you should probably think twice (and perhaps three times) before posting those drunken photos – featuring your co-workers – from your last business trip on your Facebook page.

Airing of work-related grievances should never be made public via social media accounts.  Even if the employee’s grievances are valid and documented, announcing them in a public forum can be deemed to cause damage to the employer’s business, resulting in (legal) difficulties for the employee down the line.

I recognize that for some employees in some roles, using ‘personal’ social media channels for work-related messaging (typically marketing) is both accepted and encouraged.  However, before undertaking this kind of communication, employees should consult their supervisors and/or HR for specific guidelines that may exist for social media.  It may make sense for employees who are planning to use social media during work hours and for work-related purposes to request specific social media guidelines, in writing, so that expectations are clear on both sides.

More questions?  Don’t hesitate to contact us.


This blog is provided for educational purposes only and should not be construed as specific legal advice. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional lawyer in your province.