Two Toronto firefighters found themselves fighting to get their jobs back after some vulgar tweets on their personal Twitter accounts landed them in hot water. The cases of Matt Bowman and Lawaun Edwards demonstrate the importance of ensuring employees understand the reach of their social media accounts. After a National Post article exposed both firefighters for their tweets, Toronto Fire Services (“TFS”) terminated their employment. Both filed grievances.
Arbitrator Newman upheld Bowman’s dismissal due to the vulgarity and quantity of Bowman’s tweets, which were found to be objectively sexist and racist, and their resulting implications. The arbitrator honed in on the fact that Bowman’s Twitter profile clearly identified him as a Toronto firefighter, and included a picture of him in full uniform. This was crucial in establishing that the tweets at issue caused reputational damage to TFS, making his continued employment untenable.
Of note, TFS had a genuine policy in place aimed at recruiting more female firefighters. The harm caused by the National Post article was damaging to this goal, and to the public’s trust in TFS. Moreover, it was clear that Bowman lacked any real remorse.
By contrast, Arbitrator Misra found that Edwards’ dismissal was too severe and imposed lesser discipline. Unlike Bowman, Edwards had posted only one tweet of major concern. Further, he had responded to Bowman’s tweets only in a misguided attempt to educate him. Asking what a reasonable and fair-minded member of the public would think of Edwards’ tweets, if apprised of all the facts, Arbitrator Misra found that, although the one-time event was not significant enough to warrant dismissal, serious consequences had to follow in the form of a three-day unpaid suspension.
Given the wide reach of social media – and especially Twitter – employers should consider educating their employees on its use and reach. Taking a proactive approach when implementing workplace social media policies could save an employer from the irreparable harm of an off-side tweet.
Written with the assistance of Travis Bertrand, summer student.