OP-ED: Social Media, Employment, and Dismissal in Liberia

Unless you have been hiding in the mountains, you would have heard or read about an employee who has been dismissed because of their interactions on Facebook. Social media has grown to play an increasingly bigger role in the lives of employees and their relations with their employers.

What employees post on social media can often be viewed by anyone, including co-workers, clients, and employers. In fact, some social media platforms offer employees the opportunity to list and get connected to their employers.

It is not unusual, then, that some posts by employees – otherwise unrelated to work – can be scrutinized by employers and result in dismissals or even progressive disciplinary measures. Nowadays, it is difficult to differentiate between what is private and what is professional when in the social media environment.

But is it reasonable to lose employment for comments, photos, or activities posted on social media, and what should be the limitations to what actions employers should be able to take in response to the social media activities of their employees? We have a few recent cases in Liberia that can provide guidance.

Before the June 7 Save the State protest, a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia, Cpl. Sieh Collins, posted on Facebook that he would use his weapon to injure peaceful citizens.

The soldier’s Facebook account had read: “I will never regret killing anybody on the street of Monrovia to keep my country safe. Remenber [sic] our children are in school and Liberia is save [sic], trust me I will kill u will [sic] happiness.”

In response, the Ministry of National Defense announced that it was investigating Collins: “The Ministry reiterates that the Armed Forces of Liberia will continue to exhibit good morals and professionalism in the execution of its national obligations, stressing that the AFL will not compromise acts that may undermine the image of the military as a “‘Force for Good.’”

On October 18, 2019, the security sector was again thrust into the limelight in a social media-related spectacle. Tarplah Davis was appointed as deputy defense minister for operations; however, he had produced a video on Facebook under his ‘Zoely Zoe’ alias in which he made disparaging comments against Liberians he would be sworn to protect should the Senate confirm him.

Affirming his loyalty to the president in the Facebook video, Tarplah recoiled against having a peaceful protest, one of the tenants of contemporary democracy. All through his confirmation by the Liberia Senate in February 2020, his Facebook post was a major focus. A very vocal segment of the public called on the Senate to not confirm him because of the Facebook post. In the end, the Senate rejected Tarplah.

Alternatively, in August 2019, there were rumors that senior government officials had met with Firestone to ask that the company sack Patrick Honnah as its public relations officer. Honnah, who has been critical of the Coalition for Democratic Change-led government and its leaders, has been viewed as a political target of the government.

Although Firestone never confirmed the rumors, the company later issued a statement that it “fully respects the rights of its employees to freely engage in the political process, as long as it is peaceful, law-abiding, and in compliance with the company’s Code of Conduct and other employee policies.”

There’s a reasonable debate to be had about employees’ constitutional right to freedom of expression while employed. There can be tensions between constitutional rights, statutes, and contractual terms of agreements. The tension is particularly evident in an employment relationship where there are expressed and implied obligations between employers and employees.

By this, certain forms of freedom of expression on social media can conflict with organizational policies. Those policies are enshrined in the contracts of employment or handbook. For example, employers’ social media accounts, blogs, websites, computers, copy machines, letterheads, or contact lists cannot be used to support or oppose a political campaign. As private citizens, employees may engage in political campaign activity on social media as long as it does not implicate their employer.

However, the right to be democratic and pluralistic should not conflict with an expression which propagates hate messages. Additionally, posts by employees should not promote or rationalize any messages that harm the reputation of the employer or co-workers. Of course, harm to an employer’s reputation has to be severe for restrictions on private life or to free speech to be defensible.

While employees have their right to the freedom of expression on social media, their rights can still be tempered by the fact that it could affect an employers’ reputation. A positive step would be for the Ministry of Labour and the Civil Service Agency to provide clarity through regulations that will protect employees from being wrongly dismissed while protecting businesses’ or organizations’ reputations.

Featured photo by howtostartablogonline.net

Jonah Soe Kotee

Jonah Soe Kotee is the president of the Association of Liberian Human Resource Professionals and director of human resources at Partners in Health/Liberia, a Harvard-affiliated international NGO that has partnered with the government of Liberia to strengthen health systems. The opinions stated in this article are those of the author and are not the positions of Partners In Health.

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