Social Networking: The Legalities In The Workplace

Peninsula Team

November 03 2010

Social networking sites maintain their dominance amongst a huge number of people, of all ages, throughout the world, not to mention the UK, as a method of communication and expression. Their impact on businesses is multi-fold and provides employers with issues that cannot be avoided.

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 businesses 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 the 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 which may then 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 put 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.

From a different perspective, social networking sites can be of significant use to employers because they can provide a massive marketing platform through which to reach a wider audience and generate greater publicity. Using Facebook as an example, it is not only individuals who can have a profile which is open for all users to see and businesses could well benefit from the extra advertisement and inroad into the lives of their intended market whilst they are sitting in their armchair. Statistics show that 175 million users log on to Facebook every day – where else would you find that potential exposure?

Want help dealing with the distraction of social networking in your workplace? Call our 24 Hour Advice Service today on 0844 892 2772.

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