A certain amount of control over employees’ use of social networking sites is possible, but this must all be dealt with in an employee’s contract of employment, and any other documentation that governs an employee’s employment. You are within your rights as an employer to lay down rules about the use of such sites where it impacts on work and can expect that your employee’s follow these rules where they have been made known to an employee.
As a way of setting down rules, you should consider a written policy which encompasses your business’s principles on your employees’ use of social networking sites. Your policy must be reasonable and not too restrictive.
It would be unreasonable, for example, to impose a blanket ban on your employees from having a Facebook or Twitter etc account at all. What your policy can do is make your employees aware that any comments made by them on these websites about colleagues that are found to be in nature of bullying, or have the effect of creating an intimidating, humiliating environment for that colleague will not be tolerated and will be dealt with as if the comment were made at work.
This aspect of the policy is significant because it may well play a part in your defence against a vicarious liability discrimination claim, if the comments made about an employee are because of one of the protected characteristics e.g. disability, sexual orientation etc.
You can also place restrictions on employees referring to your organisation or discussing work related issues in parts of the websites where others can make easy identification of your business. You should emphasise that fact that any comment made that damages your reputation, or is likely to destroy trust and confidence between employer and employee, will be treated in the same way as if the comment were made elsewhere, and will be treated as misconduct and may be subject to disciplinary proceedings.
Your policy can restrict employees from using social networking sites during working hours. Research suggests that countless hours of work are lost due to staff surfing the web so you can out in place measures to secure against this. You can make employees aware that excessive use of social networking sites, or indeed use of the internet for non-work reasons as a whole will make them liable to disciplinary proceedings. You could even take global approach and disable your employee’s computers from being able to log on to these sites at all.
What is important with such a policy, or any policy, is to make sure that your employees are aware of it. Don’t hide it away in a folder where employees don’t have reasonable opportunity to see it. The best way to satisfy yourself that the employee knows about the policy is to hand out a copy of it during their induction with you at the start of employment.