Social media in the workplace

Over recent years social media usage has been integrated into many professional roles. Here, Neil Atkinson discusses negotiating the line between professional and personal use.

Over recent years social media usage has been integrated into many professional roles. Here, Neil Atkinson discusses negotiating the line between professional and personal use. 

It’s crucial for companies to consider the extent to which they embrace social media in the workplace. For instance, with access to social networking sites during working hours potentially reducing productivity, do they need to consider restricting usage? Certainly, they have to focus on how social media informs their policies, from sales and marketing, to recruitment and retention, motivation and conflict resolution. But is it necessary to place barriers on when and what employees can access during working hours? Increasingly, businesses are using social media as part of work, so it’s likely that lines between work and downtime will become increasingly blurred in the realm of social media.

There have, of course, been numerous instances reported in the media about employees tweeting their way to a sharp exit. There have been inappropriate statements such as when thirteen Virgin Cabin Crew staff were reportedly dismissed for calling their customers ‘chavs’ on social media. While instances such as this are becoming increasingly rare these days, there are still cases that have the potential not only to result in a potential job loss or a formal reprimand, but can also cause extreme pain for the company. There are also incidences where the prank or ill-timed or executed comment does not originate from within, but from external sources. Take the recent example concerning Greggs’ company logo. The logo was doctored, which led to a social media storm and an ensuing campaign directed at Google on Twitter with the hashtag #fixgreggs. It was fixed and Greggs responded in a jokey way on social media, which did serve to limit the potential for damage and further embarrassment.

The rise of social media means that potential issues look set to increase and not abate. Some estimates report that misuse of the internet and social media by workers costs Britain’s economy billions of pounds every year. Many employers are already grappling with issues like time theft, defamation, cyber bullying, freedom of speech and the invasion of privacy. With Facebook’s 1.5 billion users worldwide and Twitter’s 200 million, social media clearly represents a dynamic tool to promote businesses, reach untapped audiences, attract new staff and allow clients to feel engaged with the services being provided. With employees increasingly bringing their own devices into the workplace and blurring the lines between what’s public and what’s private, it can also be a major security concern. Fundamentally, many still do not realise that the difference between a chat on Facebook and one in a public space is that social media posting constitutes publication and dissemination to a potential audience of millions.

Employers should draft a policy which deals with the degree to which they are happy for employees to use online networking for either their personal or professional use. Many employers are happy for this use to be confined to lunch or other breaks. Other employers might allow blocks of time during the day to be spent on any important online activity. While employers cannot insist that employees stop using social networking services, it is reasonable to impose limits on personal use at work  – or ban its use in company time completely – particularly if an employee’s conduct online causes potential damage to the organisation. This can take the form of derogatory comments, which can easily be attributed to or linked to the employer.

Employers should include what is, and what is not, acceptable for general behaviour in the use at work of the internet, emails, smart phones and social media, such as networking websites, blogs and tweets. However, it might prove impractical to have an overly formal policy that also rigidly covers the use of social media in recruitment.

Employers should also make it clear that any communications employees make in a personal capacity, through social media must not, may bring the organisation into disrepute, for example by criticising or arguing with customers or colleagues or making defamatory comments about individuals related to the company.

Employees need also to be reminded that their communications must not breach confidentiality, for example by revealing trade secrets or information owned by the company or giving away confidential information about a colleague or customer.

Businesses should avoid using social media when screening job applicants as candidates are protected from discrimination due to the ‘protected characteristics’ listed in the Equality Act 2010. As social media websites may display personal details such as age, religion and beliefs and sexual orientation, employers should avoid using these websites to look for background information about job applicants. Employees should check regularly the privacy settings on their social networking pages, as they can change. Also, they should consider whether they want or need co-workers to see those profiles. Employers should inform and consult with their employees if planning to monitor social media activity affecting the workplace.

Additional preventative measures could include ensuring that managers receive training on social media policies so they may in turn train their staff. This will ensure that all staff are aware of the company’s policy on social media, and that they cannot claim ignorance of it, should problems arise. It will also ensure that the company has opened a dialogue on social media with its employees which will help to prevent future issues surrounding the use and misuse of social media in the workplace.

Neil Atkinson is managing director of Deminos.

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