How tweeting can get you fired

Mail & Guardian had a story a week or so ago about rugby commentator Andrew Lanning’s dismissal by SuperSport after he tweeted information about SuperSport and its parent company, Multichoice. The article’s title, “Fired for tweeting“, was a little misleading (the article clarified the issue, though) and that idea of being fired for using Twitter no doubt caught readers’ attention. The real reason for his dismissal isn’t nearly as sensational and happens far more often than you may think.

TankLanning tweet

Candice Jones, the article’s author (and TechCentral’s deputy editor), captured the real issue at the beginning of the article:

The broadcaster’s communications manager, Clinton van der Berg, says it “regrets that Lanning, while attending a commentary workshop at SuperSport on Wednesday, chose to tweet various confidential matters pertaining to both SuperSport and SA Rugby”.

Van der Berg says Lanning’s actions were contrary to company policy. Although the company has a social media policy in place, it says this wasn’t necessarily breached. However, Lanning’s posts breached confidentiality and would have been actionable no matter the medium used.

Lanning did what innumerable employees have done before him. He divulged confidential information he appears to have been contractually prohibited from disclosing. What is novel about his disclosure is the medium he used, Twitter, and its immediacy. What I find curious about the article is that SuperSport’s representative commented that while “the company has a social media policy in place, it says this wasn’t necessarily breached”. If Lanning did divulge confidential information and this wasn’t a breach of SuperSport’s social media policy then this discrepancy suggests that the SuperSport social media policy hasn’t been adequately drafted. While social media policies should not be drafted as punitive frameworks, they should tie social media use into a company’s broader policy framework and this should include how confidential information is protected.

This story touches on a number of conflicting considerations. For starters, a confidentiality breach is still a breach if it occurs on Twitter, a blog post or in a phone conversation. To a large extent, the medium is irrelevant. On the other hand, if the information was not confidential then was Lanning’s right to freedom of expression violated? A number of organisations are unsure about what social services like Twitter and Facebook and their implications and tend to react out of fear than a meaningful understanding of what these services are and their associated risks. The memeburn post about Lanning’s dismissal lists a couple other instances where tweeting has been banned and I find myself wondering how often these sorts of bans are motivated by panic, as opposed to a need to protect a legitimate interest.

Certainly, there are many instances where Twitter use can cause real harm. A bank employee tweeting sensitive information right before a bank announces its results could have real economic implications for the bank, for example. There are a number of similar examples of where people should not be permitted to tweet about sensitive information because doing so could cause some form of harm. The same principle applies to other forms of publishing like blogs, Facebook posts and so on. Virtually real-time publishing tools like Twitter introduce an immediacy and scale that wasn’t present at all or to such an extent previously and that means that companies must approach social media use on a well-informed and holistic basis.

Companies should ensure that their employees are adequately informed about the company’s interest in protecting its confidential information and how they can help achieve this. They should be educated about the risks of using social media to publish potentially sensitive information. That education frequently includes an adequately drafted social media policy which dovetails with the company’s existing policy and contractual framework. Ultimately if an employee divulges confidential information, whether it be on Twitter or otherwise, it is likely actionable and could well lead to the employee’s dismissal.

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