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Safety First and Last: Anti-social media

By Jeff Thorne   

Features Business Intelligence

It’s an understatement to say that technology has changed the way we do things. Based on how we are feeling or what we see or hear we have handheld devices that allow us to post, tweet, remark and respond instantaneously, making our responses readily viewable to the masses.

Many organizations have a combination of social media outlets that can be used to reach their client base and allow them to provide feedback. It’s certainly great for customer service. Being able to have a presence and provide real-time interaction and assistance is important in today’s day and age. This helps build and strengthen that customer-client relationship. Right?

Usually, yes. But feedback posted on social media isn’t always positive or constructive. It can be harassing or even threatening. It could target a specific employee. Can you as the employer be held responsible? A great question, without an easy answer.

To keep things in perspective, employers across the country have a legislated general duty to keep the workplace free from harassment and violence through the development and implementation of a workplace violence and harassment program. Herein lies the very important question: are social media sites considered “the workplace?”

In Ontario, a provincial arbitrator has ruled in a case against the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for behaviour that has taken place on the commission’s @TTChelps twitter profile. @TTChelps was launched in 2012 and is designed to field questions and complaints from the public.  


The union filed a grievance on April 2, 2013. The union grieved that social media, including Twitter, was used to publish personal information about union members, to receive and make complaints about union members and to solicit public comment about Local 113 members.

During hearings that lasted a total of 12 dates over three years, the union brought forward tweets that clearly depicted abusive, racist and homophobic statements. Operators and fare collectors were described using some of the most colourful language I have heard in the workplace in quite some time. Photos of union members were also taken, posted and commented on in a negative fashion.

During the hearings, a TTC executive described the impact of that derogatory language, testifying that “bargaining unit members feel that they are just punching bags for the public and that the TTC does not care about them.” He also testified, “They are angry the TTC is allowing this to occur, that they are under enormous pressure and that the negative stigma that they feel is overwhelming.” Members were also described as feeling “intimidated, harassed and threatened.”

The TTC provided examples of action that was taken towards some of those that tweeted derogatory or negative comments. Examples included asking customers to refrain from making personal attacks or negative comments and the TTC asked that posts be deleted. They argued that regardless of whether the @TTChelps Twitter account was there or not, customers could tweet whatever they wanted to.

This is correct, we can tweet what we want, when we want to. However, it was ruled that the TTC has a legislative responsibility to provide a workplace free from harassment and violence and that social media sites should be considered part of the workplace. Simply, they could have done more to support their employees. The responses from the TTC were not enough.

It was concluded that Twitter accounts that did not comply with TTC policies could have been blocked or Twitter could have been contacted directly to have accounts blocked. Twitter has specific rules that are part of Twitter’s Terms of Service. They state that users “may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others,” and that users “may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment.”

Harassment comes in many different forms. It can be a statement, behaviour, a photo or video that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome. As we see here, it also extends to social media. 

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