Beware: Racial slurs on social media could cost you dearly

2016-12-28 08:53 - Dane McDonald and Kyle Venktess
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Cape Town – Employees should exercise caution when engaging on social media websites, a legal expert has warned in a year marked with social media racial slurs, starting with Sparrowgate on January 2.

Since then social media has been marred with ongoing racial incidents.

“With the recent spate of racially-based social media remarks, employees may be at risk of facing dismissal if what they say on social networking sites impacts on their employer's business or the relationship between them and their employer or colleagues,” associate at Baker & McKenzie Lauren Salt told Fin24.

Penny Sparrow, a KwaZulu-Natal estate agent under the Jawitz franchise, took to Facebook on January 2 and described black beachgoers as “monkeys”, in reaction to litter left behind after New Year’s celebrations.

Sparrow reportedly resigned from Jawitz Properties and the company considered legal action against her for bringing the company into disrepute.

Despite Sparrow's highly publicised case, numerous users were lambasted throughout 2016 for posting racial slurs on social networks.

Former Standard Bank economist Chris Hart resigned earlier this year following an outcry on his "racist" post, only a day after Sparrow's post.  

Hart came under fire after he tweeted: "More than 25 years after apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities."

Standard Bank immediately distanced itself from his tweet, tweeting that the bank did not endorse the comments made in the tweet and shortly after, Hart tweeted an apology but resigned in March after an inquiry.

Earlier this month, a Capetonian woman who apparently called black people "stupid animals" on Facebook claimed she was the victim of a hacker who posted comments from her profile.

The controversial post under Vanessa Hartley's name and made on the Hout Bay Complete Facebook page caused an uproar on social media. The post read:  "They are like stupid animals. We should tie them to a rope. Too many Africans flocking to Hout Bay. Draw up a petition. Soon there will be nothing left of Hout Bay."

According to Salt, racism both in and outside the workplace can have an impact on people's job situation.  

“Within the workplace, employees are protected against unfair discrimination on the ground of race, including any harassment as a result thereof, in terms of the Employment Equity Act,” said Salt.

However, disciplinary steps are not only applicable to racism in the workplace - employees can face disciplinary action, including dismissal, for racism where the conduct has taken place outside the office, she said.

The test for dismissal in both instances would be whether this conduct makes a continued employment relationship intolerable.

Salt said that according to the law, employees may not act in a manner designed to destroy harmonious working relations with their employer or colleagues.

“They owe a duty of good faith to their employers, which includes the obligation to further their employer's business interests,” she said.

Don't fall for the false sense of anonymity

According to Salt, social networking sites can give users a false sense of anonymity when venting.

“Employees often labour under the misapprehension that they can post whatever that want in their statuses, tweets, memes or other such posts because it does not fall within the control or domain of their employment.

“In reality, though, employees can be taken to task for writing negative remarks on websites such as Facebook," said Salt. This includes any racial slurs which might be contrary to the views and values of the employer.

The racial rant need not be directed at a boss or fellow employee either for the employer to be entitled to take action against the staff member.  

Salt said employees should take great care to behave in the public eye in a manner that will not be seen to destroy harmonious working relationships with their employer or colleagues.  

“Employees who use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter as a forum for expressing their personal views should not say anything on those platforms that they would hesitate to say in the workplace.”

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