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Paul Reeves

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HR snooping: Facing up to Facebook


Paul Reeves outlines some of the issues involved with viewing employees’ online profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and how HR can manage the impact of this phenomenon.

In a recent and high profile example of some of the issues associated with social networking sites, the wife of the recently appointed chief of MI6, Sir John Sawers, disclosed details of their personal life and address on her Facebook page, compromising their personal and, potentially, national safety.
There have also been recent examples of footballers and cricketers using Twitter to air their views about their employers. The blurring of the lines between private and public space, which is part of the social networking phenomenon, is key to the problem. These very public spaces have the capacity to threaten existing jobs, future careers, personal safety and corporate reputations as well as providing opportunities to contravene copyright and other laws. Organisations and individuals all have a role to play in managing the impact of social networking.  

Reputational damage

An innocent exchange of wall postings on Facebook could lead to an employee breaching their contractual obligations by, for example, disclosing confidential information about a company’s business or its clients. This could clearly have an adverse effect so an employer should investigate any allegations of this nature with a view to taking disciplinary action.
An employee who makes derogatory comments about their work, or their colleagues, on their profile could face disciplinary action as well as possible defamation or libel actions, not to mention the potential damage to the company’s public image. Employers should consider carefully the type of conduct that warrants disciplinary action and make this clear to employees.
The way an employee behaves in their personal life may not be how their employer would like them to behave but, provided it does not impact their work or the company’s reputation, then any disciplinary action would be inappropriate and any dismissal as a result could lead to a claim for unfair dismissal.  So not everything an employee posts on their social networking site should have an impact on their employment.

Bullying and harassment

The ability to join work groups on networking sites creates the opportunity for ‘banter’ between colleagues. In extreme cases, this could lead to a complaint of bullying or harassment for which an employer may be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees, so complaints must be treated seriously and dealt with promptly.  Employers need to be alert to these issues and the potential risks they pose.

Managing employer access when recruiting

Some employers have viewed the rise in the use of social networking sites as an opportunity to vet job applicants for their suitability. This can be a risky tactic as it exposes employers to potential discrimination claims. If an applicant who has not been offered a job discovers that their profile has been accessed as part of the recruitment process they could allege that information about their age, race, sex or religion displayed on their profile played a part in the decision to reject them.
While the company may have rejected them for a completely unrelated and fair reason, the existence of this information, which would be discloseable in litigation, will provide an additional hurdle to overcome in defending any claim. If employers do use this as a recruitment tool, then it is advisable to have a paper-trail setting out why a candidate was unsuccessful.

Managing employee access

In light of the issues posed by social networking sites, many employers have considered preventing access to such sites or monitoring employees’ use. Each of these options presents its own issues and, despite the potential risks, these sites can be useful for building business networks – LinkedIn and Plaxo are designed for professional business relationships. Restricted use could, therefore, be preferable to a total ban.
In addition, employees could see a total ban as an overreaction by employers to what is an increasingly common form of communication. Banning staff from using the sites could lower morale, especially in industries where long hours are common and access for reasonable periods is used as a break from work.
To manage this issue, employers should consider monitoring employee’s use to ensure it is being used appropriately. Recently, an employee who was claiming to be sick updated his Facebook page with the fact that he was absent due to a hangover. The employer used this as evidence against him in a disciplinary process.
Employers should have an internet usage policy in place to monitor employees in order to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. Public bodies must also factor in the Human Rights Act 1998, in particular article 8: the right to respect for private and family life. 
Many internet policies were drafted before social networking sites became popular and may need to be updated to make sure the now cover these sites and the potential issues they throw up. Any changes should be communicated to all employees as this will strengthen an employer’s position in the event of any disciplinary action or the need to defend any subsequent claim.

Unauthorised downloads

Employees often use social networking sites to share photographs or videos, including possibly unauthorised data while at work. This could not only damage the company’s IT system, but is likely to be breach copyright. 

Ownership of information

Where employees use social networking sites for business networking purposes via the employer’s IT system, employers may be able to claim ownership of their profiles so that they can retain any information relating to business contacts. This can be useful for employers but they must make their employees aware of this position by including it in any internet policy.

Protecting organisations and individuals

To protect themselves under the current legislation, companies should:
  • Set out the parameters of internet usage (including downloads)
  • The consequences for breach of any internet policy , including reference to other related policies e.g. equal opportunities, harassment and bullying
  • Inform employees about the level of monitoring and the policy itself, including any changes
  • Follow fair procedures in respect of any disciplinary action and apply the policy consistently
  • Not be afraid to use information from social networking sites to deal with any misconduct, provided this is done appropriately.
For employees, the onus is on them to understand the policy and to ensure that their own site pages do not breach their employer’s policies. They should also bear in mind that their pages are visible to millions of people globally and the consequences this may have.

Paul Reeves is a partner at law firm Stephenson Harwood.


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