How has social media use affected the workplace? Employment law insights

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Nov 2012

13 Nov 2012 • by Changeboard Team

Social media its permanent

Most individuals wouldn’t expect to be hauled up for what they do on social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter, for example, are viewed by many as a temporary and informal means of communication. But the situation becomes tricky when conversations about employers appear online. 

Anything that’s published on social networking sites (and they should be seen as publications) is permanent. It’s out there in the public domain and cannot be unsaid. This means that social media also needs to be on every business' agenda. 

We recently met with Daniel Isaac, an employment partner at the law firm Withers, who advises businesses and individuals. He is particularly interested in social media and employment law.

At the Employment Law Association Annual Conference earlier this year, Daniel explained: 

“A 2010 survey reported a third of respondents admitted to talking negatively about their employer on social media. Asked whether they thought it was fair that someone should be disciplined for criticising their workplace or colleagues on a social networking site, 43% said that it was not fair, while 40.5% said that is was, but only in extreme cases. Only 12% felt that it was fair regardless of what had been said.”

So how should employers respond to the increasing use of social media inside, and outside, the workplace? 

Business & social blurring boundaries

Daniel tells us how in the late 1990s, many organisations introduced employee email policies in response to the increased use of this new communication tool. Now they have to do the same in relation to social media. 

He believes that legislation is years behind technology, and the landscape on social media is not yet clear. There are still a number of grey areas as to what constitutes ‘business’ and what is ‘social’. It’s only in the last year that this is being properly explored but he says would be surprised in five years’ time if there were any businesses where a social media policy wasn’t standard.

Typically for those businesses who use social media as a marketing tool, there is someone within a PR or marketing team who is trained and responsible for what is published on the business’ social media channels (typically LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and perhaps a corporate blog). 

However, if individuals post work-related comments on their private social media accounts and feel justified in doing so, this can lead to problems. 

Facebook can get you fired

Venting about work is something that most of us have done at one time or another. It’s often just a way of getting something off your chest and you don’t give it much consideration beforehand. In a pub environment, it may just involve a handful of people you are comfortable telling – many of whom will forget it by the next day. 

By posting on social media, though, such comments can immediately be seen by hundreds of people. You have little control and, more importantly, it’s still there the next day. What was simply an act of letting off steam could now result in you losing your job.

Daniel outlines the case of Preece v J D Wetherspoons plc. In this case, an employee’s inappropriate use of Facebook after a workplace incident led to her summary dismissal. 

“This was a significant indication that employees will have difficulty hiding behind either the personal nature of Facebook or its privacy settings,” he says. While any negative comments or dissemination of confidential information will obviously result in a business need to discipline an employee, businesses may also find themselves liable for these postings.

Daniel feels that perhaps, unsurprisingly, businesses that embrace social media respond to it better and are more likely to have policies in place. He believes that those that don’t will be on the back foot. He explains: “People who are not interested in social media issues will get as many social media issues as the others, if not more. This is because they haven’t trained their employees or alerted them to the risk that they may be perceived to be talking on behalf of the company, even if they don’t use the company name.”

Should I introduce a social media policy?

For many people coming into the workplace, social media is their main method of communication. Initial concerns surrounding Facebook and Twitter were about employees wasting time at work – some businesses even blocked access to these. It’s now much more a question of putting in place policies to make your employees aware of the consequences of ill-considered comments posted on the various sites, in and out of the workplace.

There are a number of sites where you can find examples of good employee social media policies – Daniel recommends the BBC and Coca-Cola. You can tweak existing policies (which are easy to locate on the web) to suit your organisation’s needs so they are bespoke to your business.

Social media is an incredibly interesting and constantly changing area and therefore will continue to throw up new problems for employers. What is clear from our meeting with Daniel is that employers should be aware of the risks posed by social media and have policies in place accordingly.  

About Daniel Isaac

Daniel is a Partner at Withers LLP and specialises in employment and partnership law. Although he acts for both sides, many of his clients are partners of other law firms.