Although social media is a relatively new innovation, it has quickly succeeded in becoming part of everyday life. An estimated two-thirds of the UK population are now social media users. While numbers vary across different age groups, it is likely that most employees will have an online presence of some form. It’s therefore important for employers to have a company policy regarding their employee’s social media use at work, as the consequences of misuse can have very serious implications for an employer’s business and reputation.

iPhone X with social icons

Why is an employee social media policy necessary?

Having a workforce who are savvy with digital communication can be highly beneficial for a business.  However, it can also lead to a blurring of the lines between the private and public sphere. This can cause problems when it is not clear to employees what they can and can’t do in the workplace (and outside of it) when it comes to social media use.

A workplace policy, which sets distinct boundaries will not only create consistency and assists those tasked with day-to-day management of employees, but can also help an employer defend against any relevant legal claims which might arise.

What should be included in a social media policy?

Guidelines on personal social media use

Not everything employees do and say on their personal social channels can be regulated by their employer. It’s especially difficult when this occurs outside of working hours and is truly personal in nature, with no obvious link between the individual and their employer.

However, in our “always on” culture, with many people working from home, there may be scenarios where it is difficult to tell where the line is drawn. It is also increasingly difficult to ascertain whether an employee is acting in a private capacity or in a work capacity, where it would be appropriate for workplace rules to apply.

It is important for employers to educate staff about how their behaviour on personal accounts can affect the business and how staff can recognise and avoid any potential conflicts.

If it is obvious that an individual works for a certain employer then how they speak online may make others read their views as a reflection of their employer, even if the employee is not intending to speak on the company’s behalf.  Individuals may not mean to disclose who their employer is, but it could be obvious from clues in their posts.  For example, posting an image which shows the employee’s work uniform in the background.

Employers need to use their company policy to communicate basic expectations about employee social media use, such as:

  • Requiring employees to avoid talking negatively about colleagues, their employer and its customers, clients or contractors. The policy could remind employees that the right place to deal with any work-related grievances is internally to the HR team or an employee representative, rather than expressing them publicly.
  • Reminding employees to respect the law when posting on social media, in particular not to contravene relevant data protection or copyright laws.
  • Attention should be drawn to other company policies which may also be relevant to social media use, such as bullying and harassment or equality and diversity policies.

Employers often react very severely to any alleged misconduct involving social media and move to dismissal without hesitation.  However, such a response has been found to be unfair by the employment tribunals. Such decisions are a warning to employers to avoid knee jerk reactions in these cases.

Case studies: unfair dismissal related to social media

In Taylor v Somerfield, an employment tribunal found that an employee was unfairly dismissed for posting behind-the-scenes video of the supermarket on YouTube. It was highly relevant that the video had only received eight hits, Somerfield was not identifiable from the footage and no complaints about the clip had been received from customers.

In contrast, in Preece v JD Wetherspoons plc an employment tribunal held that a dismissal was a fair sanction for a pub manager who had a conversation complaining about two of her customers on Facebook, while she was still at work. The tribunal found the employer’s actions were justified in order to protect its business.

Hands holding social media policy

Usage of social media in the workplace:

It’s crucial for employers to set clear guidelines on whether or not its employees are permitted use social media at work at all. If they are permitted to access social media during work hours, how long for and what exactly can they use it for?

Where employees are using channels such as LinkedIn or Twitter for business related purposes then it should be clear who owns the contacts, passwords etc. and what happens to the accounts if the employee leaves the employer.  Employers may even wish to include a term in employment contracts requiring employees to hand over all passwords and relevant data in certain circumstances.

Confidentiality and data protection:

Employers will want to keep client details or financial data confidential for commercial reasons.  In addition, stringent new rules around the disclosure of personal data are now in force which cover both employers and individuals.  A social media policy should define what confidential informational and personal data is and be clear that employees cannot share this on their personal social media accounts.

Consequences of abuse of rules:

A social media policy should make it clear what the potential consequences are if the policy is breached. This is likely to involve disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, depending upon the seriousness of the breach.

If it is particularly important to the employer, for example because of the nature of their business, that certain rules are observed then it should be made clear that any breach may be regarded by the employer as gross misconduct.  This means that an employer can dismiss immediately, with no notice and no payment if such rule is broken.

Although the circumstances of two cases will never be exactly the same, it is helpful for managers to have a framework to work from and for employees to understand the likely consequences of their actions.

Person using social media on computer and phone

Define roles and responsibilities and educate staff

As social media becomes increasingly important for businesses, it is vital to set roles and define responsibilities. Specific social media responsibilities could include maintaining brand guidelines, running crisis response, delivering social media training and social media monitoring.

Understanding what is expected of them regarding social media usage at work will help employees to avoid breaching company policy and guidelines, as well as ensuring that the business retains a positive online presence.

For further information about how an employer may use social media, and it’s limitations, please see our related article.

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Updates: For employers: Day to day HR support | Staff handbooks | For employees: Disciplinary issues |

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