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Amy Pearce

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Facing up to social media

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With an estimated 30 million Facebook and 9 million ‘Tweeters’ in the UK, social networking sites are more popular then ever. However, the potential problems they can cause for businesses mean they are not so popular with employers. How can employers tackle these issues? Amy Pearce, Senior Employment Consultant at Croner discusses some of the issues and offers some practical advice to HR professionals.

When social media interrupts work time

Some employees are spending excessive amounts of time during their working hours accessing social networking sites. In a study by MyJobGroup.co.uk last year 6% of workers admitted to spending more than an hour of work time every day on social media sites. This can be very costly for employers in terms of productivity and could potentially amount to a disciplinary offence.

Reputation management

Approximately 8% of the UK workforce keep a blog and 39% of those that do admit to writing about their workplace, a colleague or their employer. These postings can be read by anyone, anywhere in the world and because of the way postings are archived, they may be accessible on the web for quite some time afterwards. Of course, not all of those postings will name the employer or identify the employer in some other way and not all will be negative about work place issues. There are risks for an employer mentioned in blogs as various well-publicised employment cases have demonstrated.

There have also been occasions where employees have formed a group on a social networking site to discuss work related issues. This is an issue which British Airways encountered in 2008 when a number of their ground staff joined together to criticise passengers and the opening of terminal 5. Employers need to ensure employees are aware that should they have any concerns, they can raise these through the Company’s grievance procedure and that social networking sites are not appropriate forums to voice such concerns.  

Bullying and harassment issues

Another common problem is where one employee writes negative posts about another employee or the employer’s business which results in allegations of bullying or perceived damage to the employer’s business or its reputation. However, in the majority of cases, posts are left by employees outside of working hours and are only viewable by their group of friends.  This can make it difficult for an employer to take disciplinary action against the employee. A number of high profile businesses have dismissed employees for leaving inappropriate comments on internet sites which has resulted in a finding of unfair dismissal by the Tribunal.  Employers need to show that they have acted fairly and reasonably and that any decision to dismiss was not simply a knee-jerk reaction.

When considering dismissal, employers should also bear in mind that if they do unfairly dismiss an employee, there is a chance that the case may be discussed in the media, which could bring those negative comments to the attention of the general public and have an adverse effect upon the businesses reputation.  

Employers are entitled to address such issues through informal discussions with the employee and can suggest that inappropriate posts be removed.  However, enforcing this could prove difficult.  

Using social networking for business gains 

Some businesses have decided to take steps to embrace social networking sites and use them as a useful business resource. Many small businesses use them to promote and generate interest in their business. However, this can create a number of legal issues that must be considered such as data protection issues and copyright infringement.  Similarly, it may be that competitors may have access to commercially sensitive information such as client contact details.

Recruitment

Some employers are now using social networking sites as an opportunity to look up details on a job applicant.  However, such informal vetting could expose employers to allegations of unfair selection and unlawful discrimination. 

Statistics suggest that more 20-29 year olds use Facebook than any other age group. Could employers therefore be accused of indirect age discrimination if older candidates choose not to join in the facebook phenomenon?

Additionally, such sites may give employers access to information would normally be excluded from application forms in order to avoid allegations of discrimination. 

Social media: practical protective measures

Employers can decide whether or not to impose a complete internet ban for non work-related purposes or to restrict access to break times only. Additionally, employees must be aware that their internet usage may be monitored by their employers. Such policies must be enforced uniformly.

In addition employers should ensure that employees are aware of the possible consequences of their action through the publication of a clear policy stating:

  • what is required of the employee
  • that monitoring and/or recording may take place
  • the consequences of breaching policy.

The employer may need — and prefer — to have a separate e-mail and internet policy, they may also have a separate social networking policy (as per box out).

Any e-mail and internet policy should:

  • make it clear that communications systems are provided to promote effective business communication
  • set out the restrictions governing personal use — the circumstances in which employees may or may not use the e-mail system and internet access for personal communication
  • make it clear that policies on sexual harassment and discrimination will apply to communications
  • inform users that interceptions, monitoring and recording may take place
  • give examples of reasons for interceptions, such as ensuring compliance, monitoring standards and preventing or detecting unauthorised use
  • make it clear that interceptions will be used to counter legal action against the employer
  • make it clear that passwords and terminals are not to be made available to unauthorised persons
  • set out the penalties and disciplinary consequences of breaching policy
  • emphasise that it also applies to home workers
  • make clear to employees that any e-mail contact list stored on the organisation’s system is the property of the organisation, even if the employee has created and maintained that list.

Note that a simple ban on “offensive material” watched on or downloaded from the internet may not be sufficiently clear. The employer may prefer to provide examples of the sort of material that is offensive.

Whatever the issue, social networking sites are here to stay and employers are advised to take a proactive stance in dealing with possible employment issues so as to avoid these situations. 

  • Amy Pearce is a Senior Employment Consultant at Croner
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