USING social media to air grievances is not uncommon to our industry.  Whether it is a staff member who feels they have been mistreated, or a client who believes she did not receive the results she was looking for, the occurrence is getting more frequent.

Until recently, apart from mediation and negotiation to resolve any issues there was not a lot that one could do to stop it.  However, this is all changing due to a recent case of defamation that resulted in a massive damage claim of millions of dollars.

Recently, a defamation case brought by school principal Tracey Brose from Tamborine Mountain State School – a regional area of Queensland, resulted in offenders in fear of losing their homes to pay for damages brought against them.

A group of parents went on Facebook slandering Tracey Brose with comments that were considered damaging to her reputation. The posts included comments that she expelled poorer-performing student to stop them sitting exams in a bid to pump up the schools scores.  Other accusations, the court documents revealed, included that she was a “bully”, an “evil nasty, horrible woman”, “not an educator” and “a lying, manipulative bully” and one suggested she had been stood down “obviously for something very awful, it could be for a sex offense, or a serious incident that has resulted in harm to a child”.

Court documents reportedly show Brose is suing eight individuals over the range of accusations, which were considered false and damaging to her reputation as a school principal.

Brose has taken orders out over some of the parents’ homes during the bitter legal feud and one of the mothers being sued has voluntarily filed for bankruptcy to protect her assets.  Now the group of parents involved are fearing losing their homes in the wake of the critical remarks they posted on Facebook.  Three of the respondents have settled with five remaining in Brose’s firing line.

There is a very important lesson for everyone here.  Quite simply, if you hop online and vilify someone, you risk being sued for libel – written defamation.

We may live in a brave new digital world, but you are still liable for statements that are, or may be false which trash a person and therefore their reputation, even if you believe them to be true. One of the beauties of the modern digital age is that we can have our say. But if we’re not prepared to keep it respectful, measured and constructive and especially if you are scrutinising the man or woman, not the issue, then you can expect the age-old law of defamation to be applied via a legal letter.

Of course, most media companies now use moderators to weed out the rancorous, offensive, discriminatory, racist and just plain defamatory comments, but the odd nasty still slips through.

PROTECTIVE POLICIES

Now let’s come back go our industry.  Business owners should include a paragraph in their HR Policies and Procedures manual pertaining to how any grievances should be handled and to whom staff should report if they are unhappy with anything.  You should also include a clause about vetting frustrations on social media that compromise the reputation of an individual, or the business as they can be deemed defamation and can become a suable offense.

If you do not have HR Policies and Procedures in place please contact APAN as we offer an excellent document that meets with the latest regulatory requirements and can be purchased at a small fee. This is kept up-to-date to ensure that it covers current issues, such as social media vetting of grievances among other things.

WHAT ABOUT CLIENTS?

Once again, all efforts should be made to resolve client grievances or concerns in an amicable manner.  Within your Informed Consent Form, you should include a clause that states that if a client is unhappy, or experiences any discomfort following a procedure they should immediately contact you to appropriately address the situation, otherwise you cannot be held responsible for not resolving their concerns.   

You may also consider including a paragraph that states that grievances that are not reported back to the salon or clinic, but are vetted through public forums and social media, regardless if the person making the statement believes that the statement is true or not, can be deemed defamation and may be formally considered as a suable offense.

I know that some of you may feel this measure may be a little excessive, however, the incidents of dysmorphia are on the rise and for those who have experienced unreasonable, abusive and vicious conduct from some of their clients they find such precautionary measures useful in minimising any risk.

The warning here is that once a case has gone to court is opens up the possibility of others to follow suit, even if they are from another industry.