SINGAPORE: It's a difficult situation to be in.
One of your employees gets angry and emotional about something, and in the heat of the moment, makes an abusive post on his personal Facebook account. The next thing you know, your corporate Facebook page is inundated with angry, indignant posts, threatening to boycott you and your services, and demanding you take action against your employee.
Earlier this month, property portal 99.co sacked an employee, Mr Sonny Truyen, for making insulting remarks online about Singapore while ranting about Pokemon Go, which is not yet available here. In June, Canon employee Bryan Lim was slammed over a Facebook post threatening to “open fire” on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore. Although he made his post in a personal capacity, netizens were quick to hunt down his employer and demand that he be fired.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 2014, Mr Anton Casey lost his job with wealth management company Crossinvest Asia after he made derogatory comments about Singapore’s public transport system. And in 2012, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) fired Ms Amy Cheong after a disparaging post she made about Malay weddings went viral.
Employers here have been quick to distance themselves. But this does not sit well with some, like former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, who in a Facebook post described the CEO of 99.co as a “weakling”. He said the company “completely overreacted” by “sacking an employee because some hyper-sensitive Singaporeans go online and start a witch hunt over a Facebook remark”.
The situation is a tricky one for companies to be in, particularly when online users dig up the offending party's employment information and start putting pressure on the person’s employer.
With the rise in the prevalence of social media, human resource experts Channel NewsAsia spoke to pointed out the blurring of lines between making an online post or comment in one’s personal capacity and in a professional one.
“The Internet community chooses not to differentiate between the public and private sphere,” said Mr Erman Tan, President of the Singapore Human Resource Institute (SHRI). “By right they should, but they don’t, because once people get emotional, they will resort to various ways to put pressure on the individual.”
Associate Director of Randstad Technologies Daljit Sall added that with more companies expanding their online presence, it is inevitable that personal social media accounts and corporate ones will become “intrinsically linked”.
“Say you’re doing a Google Analytics search. If you’re targeting people’s names, you’d most likely get a personal social media account but you’d most likely get their business details as well,” he said.
NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY
How then, should a company react when faced with a situation like this?
The human resource experts Channel NewsAsia spoke to said there is no right or wrong way to handle the situation, as each case is different.
Managing director of Hays Singapore Lynne Roeder said that many companies could still be new to dealing with such cases. "It could be the first time this is happening to them and they may not know how to deal with it," she said.
But in general, she suggested employers react "very quickly", and be transparent and forthcoming.
"It's important to acknowledge that it has happened, and tell people that you're doing something about it," she said. "If something hits social media, it's quite easy for companies put stuff up on their own websites and social media platforms saying that they recognise this has happened, but the person was not acting on behalf of the company when he or she made that comment, and we are investigating the matter further."
Any disciplinary action taken should, according to Randstad's Mr Sall, match the severity of the infraction undertaken by the employee. He added that it is also good practice for companies to make their HR guidelines and social media policies clear to employees. "These should also be constantly reviewed and communicated," he said.
But companies aside, the onus remains on employees not to act rashly or be too trigger-happy online. "While the Internet community should exercise discretion and not be too emotional, people should still be very cautious about what they say online," said SHRI's Mr Tan. "The best policy is for them to be responsible in their actions or statements before making a post online."
From a legal perspective, companies are well within their rights to sack an employee who has made inappropriate comments online.
“If (the action) brings the employer into disrepute, that would be grounds to fire someone,” said employment law specialist and partner at Advocatus Law, Mr Suresh Nair. “The company could fairly take the view that it is not in their interest to retain someone like that because he brings the company’s name into disrepute just by being employed by the company.”
This applies even if the employee had done so in a personal capacity.
“If the language or allegations are sufficiently outrageous, it would be well within the employer’s rights to say that there’s a fundamental breach in the duty of trust,” he added. “Even if it’s not explicitly stated in the contract, it is implicit in the employment agreement.”
But Mr Nair added that those who feel they have been unfairly sacked may have recourse.
“In situations where the employment contract has been breached, you can terminate for cause without notice,” he explained. This means employers do not need to pay their former employee the salary they would have been paid if they had given notice, under the terms of the employment agreement.
But on the other hand, he said companies could also choose to terminate an employee with notice. “They could say the severity of your misconduct is not something I want to address, but I don’t want you here, so I’ll give you your two or three months’ salary, which is what you would have earned if you were serving notice, and I tell you that you don’t have to come back to work anymore,” he explained.
He added that if a company chooses to terminate an employee for cause, they could leave themselves open to legal action for wrongful dismissal. “If the employee succeeds, then he would be entitled to the salary that he would have earned had he been terminated with proper notice,” he said.
“But if you are terminated with notice in accordance with your employment contract, then under Singapore law, you don’t really have recourse.”
He added that companies would only terminate for cause when they are very sure that the conduct of the employee justifies it. “If the objective is that you just don’t want the person there anymore, give him notice, or pay him in lieu of notice, then you don’t have that complication.
“The parting of ways can be relatively smooth.”