The growth of social media is creating issues and opportunities for companies. For those embracing social media as a business tool, it is a powerful force, but take a half-hearted approach and it can damage reputations and brands. Here, Lodders’ Head of Employment, Nick Rowe, looks at the good, bad and downright ugly of social media in the workplace as well as why, and what, businesses can do to achieve social media balance in the workplace.
This article was first published in theHRDIRECTOR magazine, Issue 134, December 2015; reproduced with permission.
Social media continues to change the way people and businesses communicate, work, and live. It provides a unique and cost-effective opportunity to connect with other businesses, professionals, and consumers, and should be encouraged, but positively managed, in the workplace.
It’s vital businesses invest time and money to make social media work for them. This includes finding the right social media channel, deciding who will manage your corporate social media presence, and ensuring employees know how and why they can contribute positively to your company via social media.
What’s of crucial importance for businesses is to have robust social media policies, to educate employees and provide an effective framework for managing them and the associated risks. It is equally important that employees exercise caution and good sense on social media sites.
In 2006, when this new way of social media life was developing, the Trades Union Congress described Facebook’s then 3.5 million users as ‘HR accidents waiting to happen’. Now, there are more than 20 million UK users, and employees regularly blog, tweet and access LinkedIn, blurring the distinction between work and personal lives.
Social media is a powerful and cost effective marketing tool, can generate fertile business opportunities, a positive image, and support and boost recruitment. But this must be balanced against the risks to an employer by ensuring employees know the do’s and don’ts around emotive topics such as discrimination, data protection, confidentiality, impact on productivity and reputation, privacy, and recruitment, all of which are top risks to businesses from social media.
Back to basics – what is social media?
Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. Prominent social media include Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, and business social networking site LinkedIn.
The growth of social media platforms, channels and use, is one of the greatest phenomena of the modern day. It’s at the heart of the HR department’s remit. It is here to stay, so rather than debating whether or not to allow social media in work time, savvy employers should focus on how to help willing social media soldiers harness it to benefit the business. Protection remains key, so employees need to understand the boundaries, not only of corporate social media channels, but also how they use their personal accounts.
To be, or not to be – on Twitter – that is the question
Often an employer’s main concern is to protect its reputation, and strategies to achieve this should underpin all company social media activities. But what of employees’ personal social media accounts? It’s critical to ensure employees position these as their ‘personal account’ as the potential for damage to a business’ reputation can and does happen, often down to one individual employees’ social media madness, as these examples demonstrate.
From his personal Twitter, Tim Roberts, an employee of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, Really Useful Theatres (RUT), became embroiled in a row with actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans when he tweeted about Cumberbatch’s role as Hamlet. The relatively bland Tweet sparked a Twitter backlash from Cumberbatch’s female fans. Roberts responded with various offensive tweets that were sexist, racist and used extreme bad language, which were forwarded to his employer by the women he was attacking on Twitter. In response, the employer proposed to take Roberts to a disciplinary hearing, but Roberts resigned before action could be taken.
Roberts argued that his tweets were his own, from his personal account and in his own time and that he could therefore say what he liked. His employer argued that he had brought their brand into disrepute – an argument commonly used by employers when taking action against employees for comments on social media. In this case, Roberts was talking in the context of the industry he worked in and the women he insulted on Twitter were potential theatregoers.
Bristol stockbroker Rayhan Qadar made the national news when he tweeted on his way to work that he had hit a cyclist, adding: ‘But I’m late for work so had to drive off lol.’
He hadn’t hit anyone, but this didn’t stop his comment from creating a widespread, bad Twitter storm. And the police began an investigation. His employer swiftly fired him the same day – it was a matter of company policy that any misconduct on social media of this sort would result in dismissal, which highlights why employers are right to put strict policies in place.
Finally, consider the fallout from one reckless Tweet by former PR executive Justine Sacco who posted what she thought was a joke before hopping on a plane to Africa.
Not only was there a chaotic backlash, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide as Sacco was airborne, blissfully unaware of the reaction her tweet had gained and the furore she was to face when she touched-down in Africa.
What can employers do?
First and foremost, don’t ignore social media – simply blocking them in the workplace is futile, and would not solve the problem of ‘out of office’ activities. It is also likely to be unpopular and create a whole range of issues, and potentially lead to the loss of commercial opportunities presented by social media. Don’t hamper employees, but educate them, ensuring they are aware of the commercial risks to your organisation – their employer – of everything they say on all social media platforms.
Set some parameters on when and how long employees can access social media during work in order to minimise any potential reduction in productivity.
Create a modus operandi for company and corporate social media platforms and their use. Ensure staff know who has responsibility and the processes around content, and reinforce that anything they post is on a public forum and impacts on the business.
Don’t hamper them or tackle this half-heartedly. Lead from the top and enable staff with efficient sign-offs on content, support those using social media to connect with existing and potential customers in a positive, professional, purposeful way that will enhance overall service channels. And give the back-up they need if it should go wrong, make sure they know who to turn to if a problem should arise, and respond efficiently.
It is a shrewd and professional employer that has a clear and robust social media policy in place, which it proactively shares with and communicates to employees, and that trains managers in the monitoring and consistent implementation of that policy.
A policy will help deal with any issues arising, and can result in the reward, or risk, of social media use being managed effectively. It should clearly set out standards of behaviour and types of posts and communications which are unacceptable, and make clear this applies to personal postings, regardless of whether the communication is made during work hours or not. Make clear the consequences of the policy being ignored, and insist on ‘disclaimers and caveats’ on employees’ personal accounts.
Is a social media policy really necessary?
Yes – a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case illustrates the importance of maintaining an effective social media policy, and shows employees why they should exercise caution when posting online.
In the hearing, EAT held it was fair to dismiss an employee who made derogatory comments about his employer on Facebook. It did not matter that the misconduct had taken place two years before dismissal or that the employer had been aware of the misconduct throughout that period.
The case demonstrates that an employer who fails to respond to an employee’s earlier act of misconduct will not lose the opportunity to take action at a later date. The misconduct in this case predated the dismissal by two years and the employer had known about it for a considerable part of that time. This case highlights the risks a business and its employees should be aware of when using the internet and email at work.
Social media in numbers:
Over 40 million active SME business pages on Facebook.
49% of consumers like a Facebook company page just to support the brand.
Each month, Facebook has 1.44 billion active users, 1.25 billion mobile users, and 20,000 users online every second.
On average, each day people spend 40 minutes on Facebook, 21 minutes on Instagram, 17 minutes on Twitter, 20 minutes on Pinterest, and 9.8 minutes on LinkedIn.
Lodders’ employment solicitors offer accurate, focused and solution-based legal advice from our offices in Stratford upon Avon and Cheltenham to a wide range of clients, who require assistance with the complexities of employment law. For help or advice please contact Nick Rowe on 01242 229096 or drop him an email.
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