December 1, 2015

When does Social Networking become an Employment Issue?

Smart phones, the internet, tweeting and blogging have all become part of the 21st century working world, whether employers like it or not.

But when do comments made by employees in blogs or on social network sites such as twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace become an employment issue?

What’s the problem?

What employees do or say outside work is usually their own choice.  However, when this impacts on their work or their employer’s business, it may be legitimate for the employer to intervene.  The most common social media related scenarios which prompt employers to take disciplinary action against employees are

a. revealing work-related misconduct, for example posting on Facebook that they are pretending to be ill;

b.     expressing views which the employer does not wish to be associated with, e.g. criticising clients, views that are linked to discrimination or derogatory comments about certain groups of society.

Why do employees do it?

Sometimes employees just don’t think about the consequences of their action.

Also, they feel they can’t be honest at work, and social media gives them a place to “vent” their feelings. If electronic communication is the norm, boundaries of appropriateness can become blurred.

The speed of electronic communications can allow situations to get out of hand. Many employees are unaware of the potential impact it could have on their employer.

Recent case

Game Retail vs Laws

The Claimant, Mr Laws, worked for Game Retail. He used his own Twitter account and other social media for marketing purposes. Each of Game’s stores had its own Twitter account which was administered by the store manager. Mr Laws opened his own Twitter account to monitor the stores for which he was responsible to see if anything happened with their communications that was unacceptable. Of the 100 stores which Mr Laws followed, 65 followed him in return.

Over time, Mr Laws started to use Twitter as a way to vent his frustrations at various non-work related issues, using offensive language often aimed at Newcastle supporters, dentists and A&E workers.

As Mr Laws account stated the name of his employer, it was felt that the comments could have a detrimental impact on the Company.  Mr Laws was dismissed.

What are the consequences for employers and employees?

By trying to manage the public communications of employees, employers risk alienating staff who feel work is impinging on their home life or that their freedom of speech is being restricted.  However, by not managing employees’ use of social media, employers risk:

  • employees airing grievances publicly
  • cyber-bullying of colleagues
  • breaches of client confidentiality and commercial confidence
  • reputational damage, causing loss of existing clients and future business

Ways for employers to minimise risk

Clearly, employee use of social media must be managed carefully.

Employers should formulate a policy and communicate it clearly to staff, including the possible consequences of breaching the policy.  Most policies allow use of social networking sites at work only for business purposes.  Any policy must be reasonable, for example, monitoring of workplace usage of social media sites should be explained in advance to employees, and reasons given.  Similarly, employees cannot necessarily be held responsible for comments made by friends in postings or blogs.  The policy should refer to other related policies such as the disciplinary policy and anti-bullying policy.  Care should be taken not to compromise the ability of workers to make “protected disclosures”, for example on illegal practices.

Any action taken by employers in response to a possible breach of the policy must take into consideration the impact on the business, for example, breach of confidentiality, reputational damage, loss of trust and confidence in the employee.

To avoid problems, it is worth reviewing other channels to ensure employees feel they have suitable, trustworthy, effective ways to have their voices heard and grievances resolved.

Further Information

If you require advice or support on any matters covered in this article or for further informationcontact us.

By Gillian Smith

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