Many businesses now embrace the use of social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, for commercial purposes. Many individuals will use these sites in their normal working lives, as well as in their personal lives.
There is no doubt that using social media can benefit both employers and employees, for example by facilitating contact, promoting business and generally giving the ability to work more flexibly. Businesses are also able to use social media to assist in the recruitment process (subject to complying with relevant laws such as the Data Protection Act 1998 and discrimination laws).
But as with most things, there are downsides. From an employment perspective, where individuals use social media both inside and outside of work, there is a risk that the boundaries between home and work may become blurred. Since the explosion in popularity of social networking sites a few years ago, employers have been faced with issues such as time theft, publication of confidential information, defamation and cyber bullying. They then have to carefully consider how to deal with these issues in light of individual rights such as freedom of speech and invasion of privacy (Human Rights Act). For instance, would it be appropriate to discipline and potentially dismiss an employee who has “moaned” about their employer on Facebook? Whilst the employer may feel that this act undermines the relationship of trust with that employee and damages its reputation with the public, the employee may feel that in the circumstances, they are justified in having a “moan” in their own time. There have been a number of social media related legal cases. Though they all turn on their own facts, what is clear is that employers can be justified in taking action against employees.
To limit the risk of this type of scenario, wise employers would give clear guidance to employees on use of social media. Whilst there is no legal obligation on an employer to do so and employers can still take appropriate action against an offending employee without this, having guidance readily accessible to employees (for example in a Staff Handbook) is useful. Employers should ensure that the use of social media for business purposes is regularly reviewed / monitored. They should also be alive to the risk of the potential damage that can be done by employees’ misuse of social media in their personal lives, and ensure that they deal with any offenders robustly.
The message to employees is simple and clear. Employees should not make any negative comment about their employer or publish information confidential to their employer or its clients / customers via social media, even if it is done on a private account and out of working time. Such publications could be reported to an employee’s employer, and if they are considered to undermine the employer or the employer-employee relationship, or damage the employer’s reputation in any way, could result in disciplinary action against the employee, or even dismissal.