Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Employment & Labour

TTC’s tough Twitter lesson a cautionary tale for business

The Toronto Transit Commission’s censure by a provincial arbitrator for not doing enough to protect its employees from harassment on Twitter is a cautionary tale for all business leaders, says Vaughan employment and civil litigation lawyer Arthur Zeilikman.

“Business owners are legally bound to provide safe working environments that are free from harassment — and that extends to social media,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Zeilikman, principal of Zeilikman Law, says many businesses have Twitter accounts to handle customer queries, and the bulk of those exchanges are respectful, but customers sometimes vent their frustrations on social media. In the digital age, the concept of “work environment” is constantly evolving; employers need to be aware of their responsibilities and allocate the resources to effectively monitor online activity, he adds.

“Employers are responsible to provide workplaces that are free from abuse,” Zeilikman explains. “Online activity falls within that boundary, so they have an obligation to patrol what’s going on where employees are concerned.”

In a labour ruling believed to be the first of its kind in Ontario, a provincial arbitrator has censured the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for its behaviour on Twitter, determining that the transit agency failed to protect its employees from harassment on social media, says the Toronto Star.

Arbitrator Robert D. Howe ruled the TTC did not effectively protect its workers from harassment — including “customer tweets using abrasive, racist and homophobic language” — on its Twitter account, which is used to respond to customer service queries, the Star adds.

Zeilikman, who was not involved in the case, but comments generally, says the ruling reflects how social media has permeated our lives and serves as a reminder to businesses that their obligation to safeguard employees extends to the digital world.

“Short of an actual physical altercation, this is no different than someone walking into a store and abusing the employee in person,” he says. “The employer controls the platform, and they have an obligation to maintain a proper social media presence.”

 

An increased sensitivity to online bullying and abuse is partly responsible for the uptick in these types of cases, Zeilikman says, noting the law is steadily evolving to address these types of incidents.

“Some of the behaviours that were tolerated 25 or 30 years ago simply are not acceptable anymore, and that’s catching up with people on social media,” he says.

Harassment comes in many forms and companies need to understand their online activity is not a separate entity from their business, notes Zeilikman. 

“There’s no silver bullet for what constitutes harassment, but you know it when you see it,” he says.

Digital business is the new normal, says Zeilikman, and leaders need to be aware of their obligations and get plugged in to what’s going on with employees on social media, without overstepping their employees’ personal boundaries.

“I don’t advocate that employers go overboard, but if they’re aware of inappropriate comments about a colleague online, they need to intervene and see if they can help remedy the situation — before it spirals out of control,” he says.

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