The Internet and social media now enable us to communicate with anyone who is online. And once we've clicked on that send button anything we say or do is suddenly out of our control...
Or is it?
How do you avoid ex employees or business partners tarnishing your good name over social media and social networking sites? What action can you take to stop it? Here is E RADAR's short explanation of the UK laws on slander vs libel as well as top tips to help protect your business brand and personal reputation.
Slander vs libel
Under English law slander happens when a defamatory statement has been made orally without justification. If the statement was made in a permanent form, e.g. recording words onto tape, it becomes libel.
Libellous statements are those that are recorded with some degree of permanence. This would include statements made by email or on on-line bulletin boards.
In Scotland, the distinction between slander vs libel is not important. It is up to the person making the statement to show he or she had justification for making the libellous statement.
Under English law, the remedies are different for slander vs libel. Under libel laws victims can win damages even if they have not suffered financial loss as a result of the statement. A person who has been slandered must prove that actual damage has been suffered. In Scotland, victims must show that some harm has been caused, and not necessarily financial loss. However, any financial loss would have a bearing on an award of damages.
- The alleged wrong-doer did not publish the statement;
- The statement did not refer to the alleged victim;
- The statement's meaning was not defamatory;
- The statement was true;
- The statement was for comment on a matter of public interest;
- In an action for slander under English law, the statement caused no loss to the alleged victim; or
- In a defamation action under Scots law, the statement was made in the heat of an argument.
1. Understand the psyche
Experience tells us that ex employees or business partners are often motivated by a strong sense of injustice and powerful emotions of anger, pain, and fear. They are hurt emotionally and financially when they lose their position or partnership without good cause, as they see it. In their view, your treatment of them constitutes a breach of trust. Now that you've breached it, so will they.
And often with vengeance! They can do it in a way few others can.
Former employees and business partners are likely to have access to sensitive information about your business. In some cases, they may have evidence of minor wrongdoings by their employer or business partner. They might be in possession of vast amounts of information about you, your family, your personal life, your business practices and some of your past mistakes and errors. They may now use this information against you.
2. Don't become a victim
Always remember that employees and business partners come and go. Someday they will no longer be with your company. Their memories of you will not end when your business relationship ends. Work out what the consequences may be if you suddenly fell out with your business partner. Remember that you can never unsay something which you've already said.
3. Stay professional
Place a high value on personal integrity and trustworthiness when assessing a new business partner or employee. Skills may be acquired, but integrity cannot be. Integrity is gold and value it as such. Always play it straight. Be fair in your dealings with employees and partners and listen to their concerns. It is the right thing to do. And it can also prevent internet-reputation nightmares later on.
4. Fix discontent quickly
You are always going to have some employees who moan and groan regularly about their salary, working hours, work load and minor things such as the cleanliness of the staff kitchen. Always look for signals of discontent among your employees, listen to their concerns and act to fix matters quickly. Keep an eye out too for those employees that never complain. Remember that you have a duty of care towards your employees.
5. Restrict access to sensitive personal data and private information
You need to balance your openness as a business partner and the protection of your own sensitive personal data (e.g. medical history) and private information (e.g. bank statements). Keep your customers' mailing lists private as well. Keep them safe, preferably in a password-protected database. Never make your database freely available to your employees, especially in a downloadable format.
6. Data Protection
The Data Protection Act requires you to take care of personal information. Make sure that your organisation complies with all the requirements of the Act, including the 8 Data Protection Principles. Personal information covers a multitude of business files including customer lists, personnel records, supply chain data, transaction records. If you neglect your legal obligations you could find yourself liable for prosecution by the Information Commissioner
Ensure that your employees are constantly aware of your uncompromising approach towards breach of data protection laws by providing ongoing training - E RADAR can help you with this. Make data protection compliance part of all your employees' employment contracts and you may also want to consider commissioning a Data Protection audit across your business. Again, E RADAR can help you get compliant.
In the event that you discover evidence of an employee misusing or unlawfully downloading your company's customer database, deal with the issue immediately and without compromise. It is important that a stern approach towards any form of breach of trust is appropriately communicated to your entire workforce.
7. Complain to the Internet Service Provider
Internet Service Providers can be made liable for the content of sites which they host. Complain to the provider if you find a defamatory post about you on a website chatroom or forum.
The Internet Service Provider should treat a notice of complaint seriously and investigate it immediately. Check out our article on The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002
8. Get insurance
Many commercial insurance brokers also offer policies which cover slander vs libel (caused by employees using email, Internet chat rooms etc), as well as other Internet-related risks such as downloading viruses, unauthorised access and infringement of copyright. An employer may well be held responsible for an employee's misuse of email even when an email policy is in force.
9. Get legal advice
You may decide defamation is so serious that you decide to take legal advice from a specialist firm. Do it. Why not check out E RADAR's list of top tech lawyers (subscribers)