Facebook has grown significantly over recent years. It now connects billions of people worldwide, all of whom are sharing information, posting comments and photos and liking each other’s posts. Facebook makes our world much easier. But whilst most people use it to connect with friends and post photos of their holidays, for some, Facebook is a way to express their feelings, which are sometimes negative, about a public body, a company, a politician or… their employer. These people probably believe that the number of readers they reach is so low and the impact of a post is so insignificant that their actions will have no negative consequences for them.
But that is not accurate, and a recent judgment by the Italian Supreme Court (no. 10280/2018) gives a perfect example of how posts or comments on social networks can have real consequences for the person who made them, even for an employee using Facebook outside the workplace.
In the court case in question, an employee was dismissed (for just cause) as a consequence of a rude and gross comment posted on her Facebook profile and directed against her employer, despite the fact that she did not disclose the name of either the company or her boss.
The employee challenged her dismissal, claiming that she was disabled and very stressed and the post on her Facebook profile was just the result of an outburst that she believed was reaching a limited audience; she had no intention of denigrating her employer.
The Supreme Court rejected the employee’s claim, pointing out that posting messages on a Facebook profile has the potential to reach an undefined number of readers and this could raise concerns when the content of the message is negative.
The Supreme Court ruled that denigrating the company for which an employee works and insulting his or her boss on a personal Facebook profile, even without naming them, constitutes defamation, given the large audience that the message may potentially attain thanks to the reach of the social network. This action breaks the relationship of loyalty and trust between the employer and the employee and, as a consequence, justifies the dismissal of the employee for just cause.
To conclude, employees can justifiably be dismissed if they post defamatory comments on Facebook even if they have no intention of causing damage to their employer but simply underestimate the size of the audience they could reach. This is because negligent behaviour can also cause a breakdown in the relationship of trust and loyalty between employee and employer, as it is an action so serious that the employment contract cannot continue, even on a temporary basis.