UK: Why Employers Need A Social Media Policy

Last Updated: 22 March 2010
Article by Michael B. Scutt

Everyone is talking about social media these days and no longer is it confined to the purely social.  Many businesses are using it to promote themselves; good heavens, even lawyers are getting into it.  But use of sites like Facebook, My Space, You Tube and micro-blogging sites like Twitter present multiple challenges to employers. 

There have also been well publicised examples of employees being caught out by their status updates on Facebook – like the woman who complained that she hated her boss and called him a pervert, forgetting that he was one of her "friends" on Facebook.  He read the comments and a beautiful friendship was ended.  Other employees have pulled "sickies" and posted that onto Facebook.  Bad move.  Not only will the boss probably get to hear about it, the employee will become the laughing stock of the internet as millions of people all over the world receive the news of the indiscretion via round-robin emails.

On one level employers may not be persuaded of the merits of Web 2.0 and the plethora of seemingly time-wasting opportunities that it provides.  There is a great risk that staff could become inefficient and unproductive in surfing Facebook all day, or watching video clips on YouTube and that must be particularly galling for those employers who see no business application for these new technologies.  The temptation might be to come down hard on employees but that may provoke claims for constructive dismissal or unfair dismissal.  In an environment where for some people, surfing Facebook is as natural as reading a newspaper or a novel, an outright ban on accessing social media may be unreasonable.

For enlightened employers who do see the benefits of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and the humble blog, the challenges are increased.  Not only is there the risk that some employees will take advantage to spend time promoting themselves rather than the business, they may post inappropriate comments on the web and severely damage the reputation of the business.   Worse still, the employer may end up on the wrong end of an action for defamation.  No longer is it enough just to have a policy covering access to websites and use of email (and don't forget to include mobile phones and Blackberrys/iPhones in those policies).

In my view, employers face three challenges;

  1. Excessive use of social media leading to loss of productivity

      2.    Risk of reputational damage/unwanted litigation to the business

      3.    Avoiding inappropriate use/abuse of social media without upsetting employment relations

Employers need to develop a strategy for use of social media in their business. This should not only cover how the business intends to exploit web 2.0 for its own purposes, but also a policy governing how employees should use it, again not just for business purposes but also for private usage.  Don't forget that younger members of staff ("digital natives") may be much more in tune with social media than older people.  In order to avoid grievances or unwanted employment tribunal claims be consistent in applying the policy.  As a solicitor who often advises employees, I frequently hear clients say that "Flossy was only given a written warning for the same thing" when they've been dismissed.      

The policy needs to take account of how the business wants to exploit social media and a "one size fits all" model isn't going to work.  Instead the business needs to ask itself these sorts of questions;

  1. Do we want to use social media to promote the business?
  2. Who in the business will be responsible for using social media?  Senior management or more junior staff?
  3.  What guidelines do we want to set them (these will probably need to be more specific for more junior staff)?  The guidelines will need to go beyond banning obscene or discriminatory comments and give guidance on how the business wishes to be perceived in the wider-world.
  4. How will usage be policed and what sanctions will be put in place for misuse or abuse?
  5. Will usage of the company's computers be allowed for private use of Facebook, Twitter, etc?  If so, will usage be restricted to lunch-breaks or before/after work?  A complete ban may be unenforceable or risks causing ill-feeling.

It's not an exhaustive list and I would be pleased to hear from anyone with additional questions that ought to be added on.

To be successful, all users will need to be "on message".  In turn this may mean getting all users to "brainstorm" to devise the "voice" of the business.   Social media offers massive potential for businesses to communicate their message, develop their identity and build their brand.  Having a successful social media policy is at the heart of getting that right.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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