"Managing People with Morecrofts"

Social media use in the workplace – Social or anti-social?

by Thomas Sutherland

Thomas Sutherland

Regulating the use of social media is currently one of the biggest challenges facing employers. Indeed, for many employers, it can be difficult to draw the line between productive and disruptive social media use in the workplace.

Whilst appropriate social media use for networking and marketing purposes can seek to increase the amount of business experienced by an employer, a lot of reputational damage can be inflicted much more swiftly through inappropriate comments made on social media by employees.

Whilst Facebook and Twitter was initially used only for purely personal use, the emergence of sites like LinkedIn alongside the increased use of Twitter for professional reasons have introduced social media as a genuine workplace activity in many sectors and job roles.

LinkedIn posts and blogs, both personal and through an employer’s website, can seek to add value to both business and employee. If managed and moderated effectively, these activities can lead to increased marketing and networking opportunities and enhance the reputation of a firm, both to potential clients and in terms of attracting new recruits.

A difficulty for employers is that they are increasingly being held accountable for the inappropriate and unprofessional comments of employees where judged to be made ‘in the course of employment’.

Inappropriate comments can constitute many things and include: negative remarks about colleagues or clients; the infringement of copyright or leaking of confidential information; and discriminatory remarks of any kind.

Case law has shown that the act of posting social media content outside of the office, or without the specific approval of their employer, will not serve to remove the employer from liability for the statements of their employee. This is particularly the case where the statement relates to the business or affects a client of the business.

An employer is more likely to demonstrate that inappropriate social media use by an employee was made outside the scope of employment if they provide effective social media training and active enforcement of a proportionate social media policy.

It is, therefore, important that a social media policy is drafted clearly, concisely and within current employment law parameters. The policy should, amongst other things, contain a summary of the range of options available to an employer should an employee fail to use social media responsibly.

Some firms wish to include a term requiring all employees to delete LinkedIn or Twitter contacts gained during their period of employment or, alternatively, requiring employees to release their LinkedIn or Twitter password before leaving employment. This can be difficult to enforce, however, in situations where it is disproportionate. It is, therefore, important that advice from a suitable HR service or solicitor is obtained when formulating such a policy.

An extreme case is that of 17 year-old Paris Brown. Paris was appointed as the first Kent Police Youth Commissioner, but resigned following strong pressure to leave her 12 month post just 6 days after her appointment. This pressure resulted from the discovery by journalists of inappropriate and offensive tweets posted by her whilst between 14 and 16 years old. Despite these tweets being made before the commencement of her period of employment, she felt sufficient pressure from local MPs and the media to stand down from her post (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-22083032). This demonstrates the truly public nature of social media posts, even when made well before the employment in question.

In reality, one of the main concerns for employers about social media use concerns the negative effect on productivity it engenders. Many employers will therefore favour an outright ban on social media use during working hours. In the alternative, any employer wishing to encourage social media use for networking and marketing purposes should ensure they set clear boundaries for doing so in their social media policy.

Whatever the employer’s views on use of social media during the working day, it is also important to address the issue of its use outside working hours. In the majority of cases, it is advisable to provide social media training updates to remind employees that social media posts are public (even following deletion) and can negatively affect the reputation of the employee and employer alike.

If employees are left in no doubt that damaging comments on social media will be treated in the same way as if heard in the office (or, in light of their public status, even more severely), it is more likely that problems will be avoided.