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Catherine Deveny – A Cautionary Tale for Using Social Media

May 10, 2010

An employee of the Age newspaper in Melbourne, Catherine Deveny, has been dismissed from her position as a contributing columnist as a result of what the employer considered to be inappropriate use of Twitter whilst the reporter was attending the annual Logie awards in May this year. Her dismissal has raised some interesting issues around the use of social media and the boundaries between public and private. Interestingly Catherine Deveny was tweeting from her personal account, at a function where she was not formally representing the Age. And yet her employer deemed her behaviour offensive enough for a dismissal. This is walking a very fine line – when is your personal life personal? Obviously not when you’re a very public personality. I predict we’ll see much more in the media on this issue as social media goes mainstream.

To read some of the basic facts as reported in the media click here

Some of her comments since the sacking are worth reproducing here as follows

 “It’s really terribly, terribly disappointing for any newspaper in this day and age to sack someone … over two Twitter jokes that were written on the couch about the Logies,” she told Triple M.

 “They (The Age) don’t seem to understand what Twitter is and they don’t understand what social media is.”

 But her most scathing criticism came when she joined ABC Radio’s Jon Faine. “I was told that my remarks were offensive,” Deveny said. “I was basically sacked for swearing on Twitter and telling grown-up jokes. “The newspaper and the people who work at it are wonderful but (readers should) tell them that you’re a grown up and you can deal with provocative stuff.”

What this demonstrates at the very least is that this employee had no idea that what she was saying was a breach of company policy. And in fact, Deveny continues to defend herself which perhaps she suggests she doesn’t really understand the very public nature of Twitter.

Twitter has a privacy policy; it clearly states that the purpose of the service is to share information “with the world”. Anyone using Twitter should be well aware of the public nature of this social media outlet and use it accordingly. Twitter is not a whisper to a closed group of friends, it’s a shout into a community of millions.

This is fine and in fact can be highly beneficial to companies if employees are aware of how and why social media should be used and the consequences of misuse. The starting point is a clearly defined social media strategy. This should then be encased in a social media policy that communicates the parameters of social media use in the workplace (including guidelines on using good judgement), the way usage will be monitored and disciplinary procedures for breach of policy. This way an employer can take advantage of all the potential benefits of social media and mitigate the potential issues.

We do not yet know whether there were such policies in place at the Age which educates employees about the do’s and don’ts of social media but even if there were the employee does not appear to have been aware of them. The Age does publicise very clear ethical guidelines for their journalists that could be applied to the use of anything published but no specific social media policy has so far been referenced in this case. If there were no such specific policies, then the employer may have a real problem if a legal claim is brought for wrongful dismissal.

 However, even if there were such policies, if the employee is believed, these do not appear to have been properly communicated and, when it is all said and done, that is as much of a problem for the employer to deal with. A social media policy is no use if employees are not trained on and aware of its’ contents.

The clear message to come out of this it to ensure that as an employer you have a detailed and customised social media policy that is clearly (and regularly) communicated to employees.

 I would also like to take the opportunity to add that is of no use to simply ban social media usage in the workplace. Anyone who has an iphone has permanent personal access to the internet and other employees will simply go home and “facebook” their friends about their archaic work environment!

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