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Gillian Mair

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Social notworking – the dark side of social networking


Social networking presents modern challenges for employers. Here lawyer Gillian Mair gives legal advice on forming a social media and networking policy in your workplace.

The ever-growing popularity of the use of the internet as a way of keeping in touch with friends has led to the rapid rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, MySpace and Linkedin. Facebook currently has more than 350 million users and its contemporaries have equally staggering membership numbers.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their popularity, these social networking sites and the virtual channels of communication which they create pose challenges for employers. The temptation has never been greater for employees to log onto Facebook at work, check their profile and engage in some banter with colleagues or friends or to try to re-acquaint themselves with long-lost school friends.

Employers are continually challenged to keep on top of advances in the cyber world and to try to curb the temptation for employees to log onto social networking websites during working hours and therefore at their expense. Not only do social networking sites pose a threat to workplace productivity, but they also provide a platform for employees to share information about their employer with a worldwide audience, which could potentially bring an organisation into disrepute.

Newspapers recently reported hospital staff as having photographed each other lying down in unusual places around the hospital (including the hospital’s helipad) and then posting their pictures on Facebook as part of an internet ‘lying down game’. Thirteen Virgin Atlantic staff were also reportedly sacked because of comments they made on Facebook insulting customers and calling into question the safety of their employers’ planes and a marketing company was reported to have dismissed an employee for describing her job as ‘boring’ on the internet.

Another spin-off issue for employers arises where internet postings by one employee concern a fellow employee – the comments made could potentially be seen as discriminatory or amounting to bullying or harassment. Employers can, in some circumstances, be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees unless they can show that they took reasonably practicable steps to prevent an employee from carrying out such discriminatory conduct. With such a broad spectrum of discrimination legislation in force, there is a very real risk that “off the cuff” comments made by employees may deliberately or unintentionally cross the line.

These examples of inappropriate or unwise postings made by employees either during or outside working hours form a fraction of the behind-the-scenes antics on social networking sites potentially harmful to employers. This begs the question: what can be done by employers to combat these issues?

There are a few options open to employers looking to minimise the risk of reputational damage or discrimination claims. One is to ban social networking sites altogether at work and block access to these sites. While this may not be practical for every organisation and requires regular reviews to encapsulate new sites that become available, it certainly reduces the risk of employees wasting time on these sites during working hours.

A simpler measure may be to either introduce or update existing IT and internet policies. It is important to ensure that such policies are as robust as possible. Taking disciplinary action against employees without warning or without having a comprehensive IT and internet policy in place could lead to disputes, potentially unfair dismissal findings and/or costly payouts.

Policies should be carefully crafted to cover those sites which should not be accessed at work or to clarify when these sites can and cannot be accessed. Staff should also be aware that if they post a comment on the internet at any time, they should do so in a manner which is consistent with their terms and conditions of employment and in such a way that it does not adversely affect an employer’s reputation.

It is also essential that IT and internet policies clearly state that any breaches of the policy constitute a disciplinary offence and in serious cases may be treated as gross misconduct leading to summary dismissal. Policies should also be signed by staff to say that they have read and understood the terms.

While IT and internet policies can give employees guidance on an employer’s expectations in respect of internet use and clearly set out the boundaries, it is also important that employers are in a position to tackle any issues around time wasting. Contracts of employment should clearly state that employees must devote the whole of their time, attention and abilities to the business of the employer during working hours and disciplinary policies should state that a material breach of an employee’s terms and conditions of employment will constitute gross misconduct – so that any issues in respect of time-wasting can be addressed.

The facts of every case will vary – but in order to manage the risks posed by cyberspace, employers are advised to start taking simple steps, such as those suggested here, to ensure that those risks are successfully minimised.

Gillian Mair, Senior Solicitor, Brodies LLP

One Response

  1. Social notworking – the up side?

    The last few years has shown that these type of communities have a place in society – so, as employers, we have no alternative but to go with  the flow, and make the most of it.  Draconian measures such as discipline and dismissal will only serve to sour any relationship an employer has with their remaining staff, and potentially future recruits for whom this means of communication is now a way of life. 

    Gillian’s article seeks to point out the down side of social networking.  There is an upside.  My organisation, like hundreds, probably thousands of others, is looking to use these opportunities to promote the positive side of business, engage with clients and prospective clients more effectively and efficiently, and enable communication with a "following" through legitimate use of social networking.  We are on the brink of a revolution – and it’d be a brave organisation to adopt a King Canute approach and try to stop it. 

    Go with it, look for the up side, encourage appropriate use rather than criticise inappropriate use.  Likelihood is, this is a sound recruitment platform for the future – and your reputation depends on your embracement of it.  This is no time to be a luddite – a bandwagon is arriving.  "Follow me on Twitter" is such a common phrase we all ought to be in on the act and forming acceptable standards for social networking useage.





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