By Neil Atkinson, Managing Director of Deminos, the HR experts (www.deminos.co.uk)
 
Companies should consider the extent to which they embrace social media in the workplace. Increasingly, businesses are using social media as part of work, so it’s likely that lines between work and downtime will become increasingly blurred in the area of social media. 
 
An inappropriate remark on a personal Twitter feed can be reasonable grounds for disciplinary action by an employer. This follows the findings of an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) after an employer dismissed a member of staff for posting allegedly abusive, non work-related messages on his personal Twitter account.
 
The case centred on an employee of Game Retail, who was employed in a role with responsibility for working with 100 of its retail stores. The employee had a personal Twitter account and this was followed by employees from a number of those stores.  When he posted potentially offensive tweets about towns he had travelled to, Game undertook a disciplinary investigation which found him guilty of gross misconduct.  He was dismissed immediately and later brought a claim for unfair dismissal.
 
The employment tribunal ruled in his favour, saying that the action was not a reasonable response by the employer, but, on appeal, the EAT said that the first stage ruling failed to take full account of the public nature of Twitter and whether the employee’s private use of Twitter was truly private, given that he was followed by a number of other employees.  While the EAT recognised the right to freedom of expression, this had to be balanced with the need of the employer to reduce reputational risk. The appeal tribunal also said that there was no need for Game to demonstrate that the Tweets had actually caused offence, only that they had the potential to do so.  
 
There have been numerous cases recently concerning employees tweeting their way to a sharp exit. Take the recent example concerning Greggs’ company logo. The logo was doctored, which led to a social media storm and an ensuing campaign directed at Google on Twitter with the hashtag #fixgreggs. It was fixed and Greggs responded in a jokey way on social media, which did serve to limit the potential for damage and further embarrassment. 
 
The rise of social media means that such issues look set to increase and not abate. Some estimates report that misuse of the internet and social media by workers costs the UK economy billions of pounds every year. Many employers are already grappling with issues like time theft, defamation, cyber bullying, freedom of speech and the invasion of privacy. With Facebook’s 1.5bn users worldwide and Twitter’s 200m, social media clearly represents a dynamic tool to promote businesses, reach untapped audiences, attract new staff and allow clients to feel engaged with the services being provided. With employees increasingly bringing their own devices into the workplace and blurring the lines between what’s public and what’s private, it can also be a major security concern. 
 
Here are some key points which should help:
 
Employers should draft a policy which deals with the degree to which they are happy for employees to use online networking for either their personal or professional use. Many employers are happy for this use to be confined to lunch or other breaks. Other employers might allow blocks of time during the day to be spent on any important online activity. Whilst employers cannot insist that employees stop using social networking services, it is reasonable to impose limits on personal use at work  – or ban its use in company time completely – particularly if an employee’s conduct online causes potential damage to the organisation. This can take the form of derogatory comments, which can easily be attributed to or linked to the employer.
 
Employers should include what is, and what is not, acceptable for general behaviour in the use at work of the internet, emails, smart phones and social media, such as networking websites, blogs and tweets. However, it might prove impractical to have an overly formal policy that also rigidly covers the use of social media in recruitment. 
 
Employers should also make it clear that any communications employees make in a personal capacity, through social media or not, may bring the organisation into disrepute, for example by criticising or arguing with customers or colleagues or making defamatory comments about individuals related to the company.
 
Employees need also to be reminded that their communications must not breach confidentiality, for example by revealing trade secrets or information owned by the company or giving away confidential information about a colleague or customer. 
 
Businesses should avoid using social media when screening job applicants as candidates are protected from discrimination due to the ‘protected characteristics’ listed in the Equality Act 2010. As social media websites may display personal details such as age, religion and beliefs and sexual orientation, employers should avoid using these websites to look for background information about job applicants. 
 
For a free Employment Contract Template and a full set of notes please visit http://www.deminos.co.uk/emp or call Deminos on 020 7870 1090.
 
 
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