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Member advice: What you need to know about social networking

1 February 2011, 11:29am

Do you hate your boss? Have you taken a sick day just so you can stay at home and enjoy the latest blockbuster? Have you had a challenging patient? If so, you'd be wise not to post this information on social media networks, writes Luke Forsyth, Senior Legal Officer at the Queensland Nurses Union.
Barely a week goes by without a story in the media about employees who have been terminated or disciplined as a result of comments they have made on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking websites.

The explosive growth in social networking as a means of communication is legally unexplored territory and is a source of headaches and heartache for both employers and employees.

Nurses and midwives like everyone else, have flocked to using social networking websites as a means of communicating with friends, family and colleagues.

But members need to be aware that their activities on social networking websites can come back to bite them in the workplace.

Recently the NSW Department of Corrective Services threatened to sack prison officers over a post they made to a Facebook group criticising their bosses and the NSW State Government's plan to privatise a number of prisons.

Their union has accused the Department of trying to intimidate prison officers to stifle dissent as well as invading the private lives of the Department's employees.

In March last year a Telstra employee was disciplined because of comments he posted on Twitter.

In recent times employees have been fired for making derogatory comments in relation to their boss, noting that they were ‘chucking a sickie' in their status update and criticising their boss or co-workers on their Facebook page.

The pictures that may be posted on social networking pages, or videos on websites such as YouTube, can also cause havoc with a nurse's or midwife's employment. Last year a number of employees of a KFC in California were fired after they posted images of themselves having a bath in the sink of the KFC store where they worked.

The law has been unable yet to develop a consistent approach to what is and is not inappropriate conduct by employers and employees in relation to the material published by employees on social networking websites.

It is still struggling to come to grips with the conundrums presented by social networking websites in relation to a range of legal issues from employment law, privacy law and copyright law. In relation to employment, this relies on possible antiquated or inappropriate established common law principles.

The ability of an employer to discipline an employee for out-of-hours conduct is restricted. In the decision of Rose v Telstra Corporation Limited, Vice-President Ross of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), after considering the historical aspects of the employment relationship, provided a useful guide as to when out-of-hours conduct may be a valid ground for termination.

VP Ross found that only in limited circumstances may an employee's employment be validly terminated because of out-of-hours conduct. The circumstances would have to be where the conduct was such that, viewed objectively, it is likely to cause serious damage to the relationship between the employer and the employee, the conduct damages the employer's interest, or the conduct is incompatible with the employee's duty as an employee.

A recent decision in the AIRC saw an employee reinstated to his employment at a Victorian supermarket after he was deemed to have been unfairly dismissed for his participation in a YouTube video that showed skylarking during the night filling of the supermarket.

Social networking websites are also being used by employers and recruiters to screen potential employees. A recent US survey found that 45% of employers and recruiters were conducting internet searches of applicants' social networking web pages.

Employers have been slow to deal with the potential implications of their employees communicating and publishing information on social networking websites.

However, you can be certain that IT policies, codes of conduct and other documents that regulate your employment as a nurse will soon be updated in an attempt to ensure that you do not make comments disparaging to your employer or breach the privacy of your patients.

Always remember that you could be held accountable for your conduct published on your social networking page, which is accessible to the general public.

This article first appeared in QNU's journal ‘tqn' October 2009, pp 22-23.


Case study: Victorian nurses discuss patient on Facebook
Last year ANF represented several members facing disciplinary action and termination of employment for interaction with patients on Facebook or discussions about patients on Facebook. In one case members from the same ward, who were all part of the patient's treating team, had a brief conversation on Facebook about a patient. The discussion was read by a Facebook "friend", who was also a senior nurse at their facility, and reported it to management. Management considered the conversation a breach of the principles of patient confidentiality and professional boundaries. These nurses would have been aware not to have this conversation in a public place within earshot of other people not directly involved in the patient's care, a lift, with a taxi driver or with friends, but the boundaries seem blurred by the still relatively new social media. On this occasion ANF successfully argued for the nurses to keep their jobs and that the employer provide education about using the new media.


Tips for using social media sites

There are a number of simple rules that nurses and midwives should follow in relation to their use of social networking websites:

  • ensure the privacy settings on the website do not allow open public access
  • don't talk about confidential patient or work information on your website
  • don't post photographs of yourself engaging in illegal, offensive, compromising or inappropriate activity
  • don't post photographs of yourself engaging in conduct in the workplace which you know would be deemed inappropriate by your employer. The same goes for comments
  • don't add new friends on your website when off work sick
  • don't become a patient or client's friend or invite a patient or client to become your new friend
  • don't fake a sick day and announce it on your website
  • don't criticise your place of employment, clients or patients on your website.
  • don't discuss clients or patients on your website.
  • don't use your website to criticise your employer, manager or other workmates
  • don't make comments that clearly identify your employer and bring your employer into disrepute on your website
  • don't update your website status about something work-related
  • don't join questionable groups on a social networking website
  • DO try to avoid using your real name on your website. 

Contact details

ANF members-only Information Line
Ph: 03 9275 9300
Related Links
ANMF (Vic Branch) social networking tips poster
This poster has been distributed to workplaces
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The Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch) changed its name to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Victorian Branch) on 26 July 2013

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