A recent labour ruling is setting a precedent for companies that use social media to respond to customer complaints. 

Ontario arbitrator Robert D. Howe ruled on July 5 that the Toronto Transit Commission did not effectively protect its workers from harassment on its @TTChelps Twitter account. The account is used to respond to customer service questions and concerns. 

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents TTC employees, was attempting to shut down the Twitter account after calling attention to the barrage of hateful tweets directed at particular employees.

There were 38 exhibits entered as evidence, including photos of TTC workers taken by disgruntled riders that were posted to Twitter with criticism of their conduct. 

The arbitrator did not rule the account should be closed, accepting the TTC's argument that it provides a valuable service to the public.

However, Howe said the TTC failed to adequately protect employees and recommended dealing with the harassment by having the TTC "request the tweeters to immediately delete the offensive tweets" and "advise them that if they do not do so they will be blocked."

Although laws have been evolving to address the increasing concern of online abuse, this appears to be the first case where an employer is held responsible for posts directed at employees.

Canadian companies tweeting

Many Canadian businesses, including Rogers, Shaw, and Royal Bank, have set up Twitter accounts to handle customer queries. 

Others, including Air Canada, VIA Rail, and BC Ferries, use their primary business accounts to interact with customers.

While the majority of interactions appear to be civil — questions about schedule changes or reasons for service delays — occasionally customers vent their frustrations using abrasive language. 

Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins says some level of anger is understandable when unexpected issues arise with a service like GO Transit. 

"We are very accepting of the fact that people will be passionate, as long as that passion comes out in a respectful way," Aikins said. 

Angela Mah, a spokeswoman for Air Canada, echoes similar sentiments. The airline faces its fair share of passionate customers on its Twitter account. 

"We find the vast majority of people understand the rules of social media engagement, and we will not allow posts with inappropriate content to be viewed," Mah wrote in an email to CBC News. 

Depending on the type of service provided, negative comments on social media may be directed at the company as a whole, rather than individual employees. Darin Guenette, who manages public affairs at British Columbia Ferry Services, says this is the case for their @BCFerries Twitter account. 

"If harassing comments are made, but they do not pertain to the issue or conversation, they are generally ignored," Guenette wrote in an email to CBC News. "If anything personal comes up, the conversation is taken off-line if possible."

The customer service representatives and employees behind these Twitter accounts bear the brunt of any abuse. 

"When we're going through service disruptions, they go through a lot," Aikins said. "We don't expect employees to tolerate anything different than what they should tolerate in person."

Now that this promise has extended to social media, companies may be held to account for online attacks against their employees if they fail to address the abuse. 

Evolving standards

David Mangan, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School who studies how Canadian employment law relates to social media, told CBC News most of the existing case law has dealt with disciplining workers for what they have posted on their own social media accounts. This recent ruling has turned the tables to focus on the employers.

"The decision demonstrates a responsibility that can place employers, especially service-oriented businesses, in a position of policing what we might call more extreme speech; that is racist, sexist, homophobic speech," Mangan said.

These were the types of tweets provided as evidence in Howe's decision, and what prompted union executive Rocco Signorile to file the grievance in the first place. 

"It crossed so many lines," Signorile told CBC News. "There were death threats."

Appropriate response

In his decision, Howe recognized that many of the responses by @TTChelps were "inadequate" and urged the organization to explicitly state that it will block users who fail to delete "abusive, profane, derogatory or offensive" content. 

TTC spokesman Brad Ross says this is already part of the organization's social media policy. Ross told CBC News that "every tweet needs to be treated differently" but there are certain courses of action "if a tweet is abusive or threatening in any way."

"Somebody sent me quite a vile tweet about an employee that had coffee thrown at him. I blocked him," Ross said.​

Another one of Howe's recommendations is contacting Twitter to request an offensive tweet be deleted when a user fails to remove it. 

CBC News asked Twitter Canada for comment, but the company said it does not comment on specific cases or about individual accounts. 

Twitter's terms of service stipulate that users "may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others" and that they "may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment."

The company recently ignited debate after Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for "abusive behaviour."

Ross says shutting down customer service accounts isn't the answer, especially for organizations that serve the public. "The TTC as a public transit provider has broken a lot of ground," he says. 

"Social media is here to stay."