The growth in the use of social media in recent years has been phenomenal. Communications regulator, Ofcom, reported only this month, that UK adults now use technology for more hours each day than they spend sleeping. Article by Jane Cox employment partner at national law firm Weightmans.
The younger generation communicate increasingly by text, instant messenger or via social media rather than actually talking to each other over the telephone. Reports suggest that there are now some 750 million users of Facebook with 50% of users logging every day and that some 460,000 new users sign up to Twitter each day.
The evolution in communication technologies has not only impacted individual interactions but the way in which employers and businesses communicate also. For businesses, most of their use of social media is outward facing. Networking sites are utilised to raise brand awareness, enhance marketing and communication with customers or consumers but also for attracting new talent. While employers are using social media for recruitment and employee communication and engagement, professional individuals are engaging with this platform also. Whilst many businesses use sites such as Twitter or LinkedIn for professional purposes, vast numbers also have profiles for personal networking and here lies the concern. Social media has not only changed the way that we interact with others but has further blurred the dividing line between our personal and working lives.
Communication via Twitter or Facebook is such an instantaneous and unregulated forum that it can be all too easy for ‘tweets’, ‘posts’, ‘likes’, ‘images’ or ‘favourites’ to be misinterpreted or misused. The danger of this is that social media posts to an online virtual audience so extensive is that the ramifications of a poorly written tweet, or controversial ‘like’ can be cataclysmic.
One of the most recent examples was the press controversy following David Gold, owner of West Ham football club, favouriting a derogatory message about the club’s manager, Sam Allardyce. The impact of this simple ‘click of a button’ led to significant press speculation regarding Allardyce’s possible dismissal. While Gold later apologised for this action, blaming it on the confusion of jetlag, his actions went viral and made national press. In addition, from an employment law perspective, Gold had provided Allardyce with a strong claim for constructive dismissal.
In light of such risks, it can be a real challenge for employers to keep track of developments in social media technology, finding the best ways to exploit business opportunities whilst still minimising the potential risks that such engagement causes. Employers have to strike the right balance between encouraging their employees to effectively use social media in a work context, particularly with a view to attracting new contacts and new business but still ensuring that such use is legal, responsible and not offensive.
As with so many other aspects of the employment relationship, it’s crucial that all employers have a comprehensive social media policy which reflects the organisation’s approach and priorities and the likely risks to the business and sets very clear boundaries as what is and is not permitted. The policy must be regularly reviewed and updated, any developments addressed and it needs to be properly communicated to all employees. Implementation will require monitoring, training and a consistent application of the policy if breaches arise, regardless of the seniority of the employee. Any social media policy should do the following: Clearly define what, if any, personal use is permitted; cross refer to other relevant policies such as the employer’s disciplinary procedure and data protection policies; specify whether employees can mention their employer on personal accounts; require employees to set appropriate privacy settings on accounts; remind employees that social media activity is not necessarily private; explain the level of monitoring undertaken by the employer and the purposes for this; emphasise the importance of confidentiality; prohibit all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying; encourage employees to raise work related complaints or concerns through the grievance procedure; make clear the likely sanctions for any breaches.
Social media related issues do not necessarily end when the employment relationship ends. Many employees will have a single LinkedIn profile that they use for both personal and professional purposes. This will include a list of contacts. Whilst a list of contacts in Outlook will usually belong to the employer the legal position as regards to lists on networks such as LinkedIn is not so clear. It’s therefore important that employers ensure that any restrictive covenants in the contracts of senior employees expressly restrict the use of social media. It’s therefore crucial for employers to have a detailed knowledge of how social media works, keep pace with new developments and avoid the disaster of inappropriate activity going viral.