Taking on Twitter trolls: Handling hostile social media

Publication August 2016

Social media can be a wonderful platform to interact with customers. Amongst other things, it can promote positivity, as well as provide direct interaction with customer service. However, it can also be an avenue for derogatory, abusive, offensive, and inappropriate statements about your employees. How you handle the legitimate complaints and trolls is important for any employer with a social media profile. 

Employers have an obligation to maintain a harassment free workplace. As one recent arbitrator found, this obligation can extend to comments posted to an internet site controlled by the employer.

In Toronto Transit Commission and ATU, Local 113 (Use of Social Media), Re, 2016 CarswellOnt 10550 an Ontario arbitrator found that the Toronto Transit Commission (the “TTC”) had "failed to take all reasonable and practical measures'' to protect its employees from derogatory comments tweeted to the @TTChelps handle.

TCC set up the @TTChelps Twitter account as a way to keep in contact with the public and field customer complaints.  @TTChelps would often respond to Tweets with such statements as “Sorry to hear that” or “that doesn’t sound right” and would ask for badge numbers of drivers and additional information such as the bus line.  @TTChelps would also direct users on how to formally complain through the  phone or the website.

While @TTChelps often responded to customer inquiries about route changes or TCC policy, the account also received Tweets which included derogatory, abusive, offensive, and inappropriate statements about TTC staff.  Sometimes the Tweets included photos or other information which could be used to identify the TTC driver subject to the inappropriate statement.

Unlike Facebook or other forms of social media, Twitter does not allow companies to delete negative or derogatory posts.  On Twitter, users can block or report other users. However, @TTChelps  rarely used this function.  @TTChelps account would respond to certain Tweets with an approach like “we understand your frustration but please refrain from profanity.” It would not take any steps to ask the user to remove the post.

The arbitrator found that the TTC’s conduct was contrary to its obligation to provide a safe workplace, free from harassment. The arbitrator found that it was not appropriate to take complaints about employees through social media or to discuss them publicly. Further, the arbitrator found that @TTChelps allowed the public to subject  employees to all sorts of abuse, including derogatory language, sexual harassment, sexist and racist comments, and threats of violence.  As such, the TTC was violating its obligation to take positive and reasonable steps to ensure that its workplace was free from harassment.

TTC was ordered to develop a social media policy and take steps to block or report users who posted offensive messages.  

While each company will take a different approach to its social media profile and policies regarding its use, it is important to have an appropriate policy and consider the various legal obligations involved. Common law, contracts, collective agreements, and statutory regimes such as workplace health and safety, human rights and privacy are all important factors in determining how an organization ought to approach social media. The TTC case is another reminder that what happens on the internet can have workplace implications. You should have a policy for that.


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