The unprecedented growth of social media in recent years has proven a major force in changing the way businesses engage with customers and stakeholders. Social media platforms have become indispensable tools in companies’ marketing strategies, enabling levels of ongoing customer communication previously unattainable.
But despite the communicative power of social media from a business perspective, many organisations are becoming aware, sometimes painfully, of the dangers involved in employees’ social media use.
In the modern economy, the ever-growing ubiquity of personal technology means employees’ private and professional lives intertwine now more deeply than ever. But as the lines between home and work life continue to blur, employees must tread carefully or run the risk of having their social media use put them on a legal collision course with their employers.
From publishing candid posts about their private or work life on publicly available platforms to inadvertently revealing confidential work information, employees’ use of social media in and outside of the workplace brings significant potential pitfalls. It can also undermine trust and confidence and call into question productivity levels if employees are engaging in heavy use of social media while at work.
From an employer’s perspective, the question is a simple one: what can be done to mitigate these risks and ensure employees use social media responsibly?
Have a watertight social media policy
A carefully drafted social media or communications policy is vital in setting clear and agreed parameters for employees’ social media use – including on their own devices, whether within or outside work hours.
Not only does such a policy help guide and inform employees’ behaviour, thus preventing infringement, it also bolsters an employer’s ability to act when a member of staff deviates from the rules.
Use disciplinary policies in tandem
Disciplinary policies should be used in tandem with declared social media and communications policies, and match stated examples of misconduct or gross misconduct.
In situations involving social media misdemeanours, the employer must conduct disciplinary procedures in accordance with the company’s established policy or the Acas Code of Practice. Any offences should be handled consistently in order to avoid claims of disproportionality, of there being a ‘witch hunt’ to dismiss a particular employee, or of unfair leniency.
Employers are not free to ‘snoop’
It has been widely reported that employers have carte blanche to view employees’ personal messages on work equipment and to use any incriminating discoveries against them. However, this is not the reality. Evidence obtained either by chance, or that which at face value may reasonably be considered work-related, can be used by the organisation provided it has a policy permitting its internet and email facilities to be monitored. An employer is also able to read postings on social media that are accessible to the public.
However, viewing data that is clearly personal, such as that found on an employee’s password-protected email account, does not represent acceptable monitoring and could amount to a breach of privacy.
Employers can block certain sites
Employers are able to and may wish to consider blocking access to social networking websites from work computers to reduce risk to IT systems from breaches of security and viruses. Preventing employees’ use of social media in work time can also be addressed by imposing a blanket ban on using personal mobiles or devices during working hours.
However, such an approach can appear heavy handed and runs the risk of damaging morale among the workforce. A middle ground could be considered by allowing employees to use social media at work with certain, clearly defined restrictions – for example, allowing access to permitted internet sites from designated computers or areas or during defined periods only.
Raise consciousness about the legal issues
Training employees in internet and security issues is essential in today’s digital age. It is common for many employees to be unaware of how their actions on social media can bring the organisation into disrepute or embroil employers in a legal claim. Where social media posts amount to defamation, discrimination or harassment of a colleague or business contact, or where they have divulged commercially sensitive or confidential information, then there is serious risk posed to the business. This can be mitigated by ensuring that employees have a clear understanding of the company’s IT and communication policies, what the expectation is regarding their use of IT and social media and what could present a risk to the company.
The social media landscape can be difficult territory to navigate. When addressing the use of social media by employees, employers must be careful to balance protecting the business from legal and reputation risk, with the need to demonstrate trust in employees to behave responsibly.
Every employee enjoys a right to privacy and freedom of expression, but employers also have the backing of the law where an employee’s conduct compromises the businesses reputation or the unwritten relationship of trust and confidence between the parties – provided, of course, that evidence has been lawfully obtained.
What is clear is that employers cannot ignore the issue – and the possible damage that employees’ misuse of social media can cause.
Helen Crossland is a partner in the employment team at law firm Seddons.