How not to make a Twitter of yourself!

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming more and more popular with both employers and employees; however despite this, they can still create many potential workplace difficulties.

Whilst social networking has been popular amongst individuals for some time, small businesses are increasingly recognising the potential benefits of social networking sites to form a small group of contacts and generate interest in the business, whilst at the same time offer discounts and promotions with a view to encouraging loyalty and improving customer numbers.

Common workplace problems arise where disgruntled employees leave negative comments about their employer or colleagues either on official sites, or on their own personal sites about work issues. This can cause two problems for employers; firstly, it can leave them feeling that the reputation of their business has been damaged, and secondly it can also cause friction between employees whilst at work; if one employee feels bullied or harassed.

In order to be well prepared for the kind of issues that may arise in the workplace, employers are best advised to consider whether to introduce a social media policy. As with all internal documentation, policies should be tailored to the specific requirements of the business. That said, the following points may be useful to consider.

A suitable social media policy should detail clear standards of acceptable online behaviour both inside and outside of the workplace. In the majority of cases, posts are left by employees outside of work time and are only viewable by a select group of friends; and in these circumstances employers must ensure that employees are aware of their expectations in respect of posts on both company and personal sites.

Within the workplace, parameters in respect of personal internet use should also be defined in the policy, such as whether social networking is allowed only in lunch and rest breaks outside of normal working hours; and whether company equipment may be used for these purposes. Some businesses also choose to restrict social media use to non-client areas, such as the staffroom. If permitted during working time or on company equipment, social media use is often subject to a maximum time limit; and as a compromise you may want to consider whether to impose a restriction on sites which can be visited during working hours.

Any suitable social media policy should also set out the potential consequences of any breach, and the likelihood of disciplinary action; up to and including dismissal. In order to adequately rely on your policy for disciplinary purposes, it is imperative to clearly state that inappropriate posting includes messages or comments which are made outside of work time and on personal sites that may have an impact on the employees ability to perform their role, or posts which may damage the employer’s reputation or cause embarrassment.

Employers must be mindful that the nature of social networking can make it difficult and risky to take disciplinary action against an employee as the conduct may well have happened outside of the course of their employment, and arguably there has been no detrimental effect on the employer’s business. However, in 2015 the EAT refused to provide specific guidance on the use of social media and unfair dismissal on the basis that each case is ‘fact specific’ – in a decision where it held that an employee of a large computer game retail firm was unfairly dismissed for employment related tweets sent from his personal Twitter account.

With this in mind, employers will need to show that they have acted fairly and reasonably in taking formal disciplinary action and, most importantly, that any decision to dismiss has not been a knee-jerk reaction. Of course, where appropriate, employers can address such issues through informal discussions with the employee and can suggest that offending posts be removed. However, enforcing this through the disciplinary procedure could prove difficult.

One final point worthy of note; a strict social media policy on personal use, yet encouragement to post or tweet about the company business on official sites can sometimes leave employees feeling that they are receiving mixed messages from their employer in respect of their media use. For this reason a careful balance should be sought in order to avoid additional workplace issues.