Love it or loathe it, social media is here to stay, but the virtual world is still at a relatively embryonic stage and largely unregulated, which can make it something of a minefield for employers to navigate.
A passing comment or a fleeting Tweet can all pose serious reputational risks for employees and the companies they work for.
So how can employers implement a strong social media policy without encroaching on an employee’s private life, and what are the do’s and don’ts of such a policy?
Social media expert Nikki Hesford, who runs the Business Academy digital marketing consultancy, says one of the most important things is to communicate why you are implementing a policy for social media.
“For many employees, the immediate assumption will be that it is to control them, so it’s normally far better received if they understand why you are putting a policy in place and how it will also protect them,” she says.
The policy should, ideally, be communicated as part of the new employee induction process, and included in the employee handbook, which has to be signed as part of the induction, Hesford says.
Encourage them to look at the ‘bigger picture’
Make sure, Hesford advises, that staff understand how their activity on social media, especially Facebook, reflect on the company.
“I have seen lots of cases recently where people have become engaged in heated debates in groups or on pages, often relating to Brexit, immigration or Donald Trump, and have expressed opinions which might be considered offensive,” she notes.
“Their comments have then been screenshot and sent to their employer – who is clearly listed on their profile.” Even people who don’t list their employer on their profile can, says Hesford, be easily found through a Linked In search.
Having a robust policy in place protects the employer when there is a misconduct issue, says Hesford.
“Having it written in black and white, avoids any ambiguity over what is or is not acceptable,” she notes.
Uzma Rabi, employment consultant at Mackrell Turner Garrett law firm, says:
“Be clear about the reasons for the policy: it is to ensure no inappropriate, offensive behaviour will be tolerated on social media. Ensure employees also understand the ‘vicarious liability’ of employers, for employees’ actions outside of working hours.”
Explain that the aim is to protect the employer’s brand and reputation.
“The policy is also for the protection of employees and their individual reputations as an employee of a particular organisation,” Rabi notes. “One that does not tolerate or condone such behaviour. This is a really important point for employees to understand.”
Appoint an internal or external social media person or someone in the HR team to carry out some form of training which should typically show a number of different scenarios of misuse of social media and the actions an employer should take in such scenarios.
‘The training programme should make employees aware of what is and is not acceptable behaviour and the sanctions an employer has put in place for misuse or abuse, i.e. disciplinary action which may involve suspension or dismissal,” says Rabi.
Set boundaries but don’t snoop
Employees should never feel as though they are being ‘snooped’ on and a policy should always factor in the Human Rights Act (i.e. the right to respect for private and family life) and Data Protection/GDPR regulations.
“A policy should not, in the words of the ACAS guidance, give the employees a feeling of being ‘gagged’ or subjected to surveillance or monitoring when it comes to their IT/computer/smart phone usage,” Rabi advises.
Remind employees that a policy can work in their favour
An employer has an obligation to protect employees from online abuse and/or cyber bullying, says Rabi.
“If an employee is suffering from online abuse it can cause huge problems for employers, including poor morale, poor relationships with colleagues and sickness absence,” she notes. The employee might, ultimately, leave the company if things are not handled sensitively.
“These are all issues which an employer should take seriously. And if it’s not handled properly, an aggrieved employee may potentially have a claim against an employer,” Rabi notes.
Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.