Social media policies are increasingly vital in the workplace, claims law firm

James Hall, associate at Charles Russell LLP, claims it is increasingly important for companies to have a comprehensive and up-to-date social media policy for employees

Hall: social media policy is vital

Hall: social media policy is vital

Managing and controlling social media activity

Social media has rapidly become a fact of life, both in and out of the workplace. The sites can be useful for promoting brands, connecting with clients and keeping on top of industry trends, with the added bonus they are often free of charge.  

It is well-known such sites are not without their downsides. However, until recently, companies have focused on them being a distraction at work, or workers implicating the company in inappropriate comments made in their own name. The recent experience of HMV has shown a potentially larger area of concern of how to control the comments being made on company profiles.

Social media in the company name

Facebook and Twitter profiles for companies are now de rigueur, adding that ever-important ‘human touch’. But in the scramble to make use of these generally free resources, companies are increasingly showing the senior management do not fully understand the true impact social media can have.

Take the now famous HMV tweets, sent out by junior employees as the company went into administration: “We’re tweeting LIVE from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!” and “There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.” Amusing as these tweets may be, perhaps the most telling of all also emerged from the HMV account: “Just overhead our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask: “How do I shut down Twitter?” #hmvXFactorFiring”. It seems many companies have been all too willing to employ a junior employee on a low wage and largely give them free reign over the company social media platforms. Similar responsibility would never be handed out in relation to advertising campaigns and you can be certain that a marketing director would know exactly how to pull a campaign that proved controversial.  

Social media in the workers’ names

Not so long ago, workers would only be granted internet access if their role specifically required it. Today, such a restriction would be unthinkable for pretty much all workers with computer access. The same is becoming true of social media access.  

A survey in the US revealed two-thirds of job applicants ask about social media policies at interviews and 56% either turn down jobs due to a lack of social media access or ignore the policy once they start the job. Whatever the downsides to granting access, there are increasing arguments allowing access can lead to a more productive workforce with improved concentration and work output.  

Employers should consider the extent to which they will allow or encourage access to social media and should ensure workers know what constitutes acceptable conduct. Some employers continue to block access to social media sites entirely but, given the popularity of smart phones, employees can simply access banned sites via their phones while at work if they choose.  Alternatively, employers can restrict access to social media sites to outside of core business hours and over the lunch period.  

Regardless of the extent of access, it is advisable for employers to have a social media policy in place to discourage employees from certain activities and allow them to take action if necessary.

Social media policy

As social media continues to grow, having a comprehensive and up-to-date social media policy is increasingly important.  

Many companies are wise to the dangers of workers venting workplace frustrations in their own name. However, they should ensure such policies clearly cover such actions taken by workers in the company’s name, or indeed in any other name.

The fact social media can facilitate bullying between colleagues continues to be important. Employers can be held vicariously liable where online bullying is deemed to be ‘in the course of employment’, which is given a wide meaning as the distinction between home and the workplace becomes increasingly blurred. It is therefore vital such actions are dealt with in any policy.

Sanctions for breach of the policy, from disciplinary action up to dismissal, must be made plain and enforcement should be consistent. The policy should also be publicised internally and be easily accessible. HR induction programmes are a good way to draw attention to company policies and asking staff to acknowledge receipt may improve enforceability.  

What should social media policies include?

Areas to cover include:

  • Permitted usage of social media at work
  • Recommended privacy settings
  • Disciplinary procedures for breach of the policy, including clear sanctions for online bullying and harassment
  • Examples of what may constitute defamatory comments
  • An explanation of the risks of misusing confidential information, intellectual property and personal data
  • Where employees are asked to blog or tweet for business purposes, guidance on appropriate content
  • Information on monitoring

Employee monitoring

Employers can monitor employee use of the internet on company systems, however, in order to be lawful, an impact assessment must be carried out balancing the needs of the employer with employee privacy rights. Any monitoring must be proportionate and employees must be given certain information about why and how the monitoring is undertaken.

Permitting access to social media sites within the parameters of a policy ensures businesses do not lose out on the benefits of this technological phenomenon but are protected when employees act without authority.