Dutch Judge: Companies Can Lay off Employees Over Facebook Insults

Employees who heavily insult their employers on social networks can be fired because messages on social media are at least semi public and can be easily replicated throughout the internet, a judge in the Netherlands ruled this week.

The employment contract of a 38-year-old warehouse employee of the Dutch chain store Blokker was terminated last February because he made insulting comments about his employer on the social networking site Facebook. The case was brought to court and the judge ruled last Monday that the man can be laid off based on his "grossly insulting" Facebook posts.

According to the verdict, published Wednesday, comments made on Facebook are not private. " The claim by the employee that Facebook belongs to the private domain of the employee is, in the opinion of the district judge, incorrect," the verdict reads. The man said in his defense that only friends could see his status, making it a private comment, but the judge ruled that the risk of republishing the comment by other Facebook users was high, and can be easily done.

Facebook users can replicate someone's post by 'liking' it. A liked post will appear in the timeline of the liker, making the liked post visible to his or her friends too.

The man, frustrated with his boss because he denied him an advance on his salary, removed his post shortly after one of his co-workers who also happened to be a Facebook contact sent the comment to his employer. This makes no difference, ruled the judge, because this was an afterthought: The man should have thought about his actions beforehand.

There are no earlier known cases in the Netherlands in which a judge ruled someone could be laid off on the basis of comments made about employers in social media, both Blokker's lawyer and the man's attorney said in phone interviews.

Pjotr Snoek, the lawyer defending the man, said he got the impression that the judge pretty quickly concluded that it was time to put an end to employees making disgruntled comments about their employers in social media.

Snoek also raised the question how public comments made on Facebook actually are, calling the verdict doubtful. "Sending an email to twenty friends is easily done," he said, pointing out that you could compare that to a fairly private Facebook post. "He had a very limited group of friends on Facebook."

Snoek thinks employees are unaware of the semi-public character of social media. "You could easily think you are doing something private," he added. "This is a very clear signal of the judge to employees: Beware of your online actions."

According to Ralph Dessaur, Blokker's lawyer: "If employees go on the Internet they at least partly enter the public domain," he said, emphasizing that Internet comments are made with certain intentions. "If you do that you cannot hide behind private information," he said. "The danger of the replication of information on the Internet is common sense."

Both lawyers think this court case will be used to refer to in similar cases in the future. Because this was a so-called termination procedure the verdict cannot be appealed.

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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