Employer Takes Action After Employees’ Derogatory And Offensive Tweets Damage Its Reputation

At the same that that the Toronto Fire Services Division was looking to recruit more women and minorities, two of its firefighters were tweeting messages described as “sexist, misogynist, and racist.” In 2013, just after the Division released its “Path to Diversity” report, outlining its plan to increase workforce diversity, Canada’s National Post ran a story with the headline: “As fire department looks to recruit women, sexist tweets suggest some firefighters may not be so welcoming.” The story covered off-duty tweets sent by two Toronto firefighters, Matt Bowman and Lawaun Edwards, that were derogatory toward women.

The Division reacted immediately, and suspended both employees pending an investigation. During its investigation of Bowman, the Division came into possession of numerous additional tweets that were “overtly racist, or were demeaning to women, ethnic minorities, and homeless persons.” It thereafter terminated Bowman, stating that his conduct violated “policies concerning dignity in the treatment of other persons,” as well as policies concerning the “use of social media.”

The investigation into Edwards indicated that he had sent far fewer offensive tweets, and had actually made an effort to cut short racist comments made by Bowman in a Twitter exchange. Nevertheless, the Division decided to terminate Edwards, citing that he breached the same policies as Bowman, and that “considering the timing of the Path to Diversity report, his conduct was harmful to their efforts to welcome diverse candidates to the [Division].”

Bowman and Edwards subsequently filed union grievances, and their cases proceeded to arbitration. The union agreed that the firefighters had engaged in misconduct, but argued that termination was an excessive penalty under the circumstances. With respect Bowman, the arbitrator affirmed the Division’s decision, finding that his numerous tweets had damaged the Division’s reputation and violated its policies. In Edwards’ case, the arbitrator disagreed with the department and substituted his termination for an unpaid suspension, finding that his comments were “isolated” and at the “low end of the spectrum of unacceptable behavior.”

These cases present another example of the damaging effect employees’ inappropriate social media posts can have on an employers’ objectives, image, and reputation; in this case, the recruitment of a diverse workforce. Although the employer appears to have taken prompt corrective action, the employees’ inappropriate tweets garnered the employer undesirable negative attention. With a carefully drafted social media policy and consistent training for its workforce regarding that policy, an employer can decrease its risk in becoming embroiled in a similar situation.

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