< The beta blog | Sep 5, 2014
The importance of social media policies
Over the last number of years social media has become a useful communications channel for both our personal and work lives. The rise of mainstream social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has been nothing short of phenomenal as people have joined in their millions and, in Facebook’s case, billions to communicate with friends, loved-ones and colleagues regardless of their physical location.
Social media is certainly here to stay and is growing in more importance as organisations of all kinds understand the benefits it can bring. However, social media is still a relatively new form of open and transparent communication and one which has legal and ethical implications in a work setting if employees don’t understand how to use it properly.
For example, a recent BBC report indicates that police forces in England and Wales are making use of social media policies to discipline employees who have posted inappropriate content online (both during working hours and outside of working hours). This is with good cause as some examples of cases investigated by police forces included:
- A community support officer with Devon and Cornwall Police who received a final written warning after posing with weapons on Facebook
- A sergeant with the same force who was given a written warning after making remarks about senior officers on the site
- A Gwent police officer who was using Facebook was given a written warning for sending an "abusive" message to a member of the public
While a social media policy is not restricted to the police force the examples above illustrate that even the professionals working in the emergency services are not immune to inappropriate use of social media.
Rolling out a social media policy
Drafting a pragmatic social media policy can allow an employer to minimise risk associated with employees’ use of social media (in both a business and a personal capacity), by proactively defining acceptable and unacceptable uses in the context of the employment relationship, and ensuring that disciplinary action can be taken if required. Social media policies can be aligned to company-wide employee policies and there is often an overlap between the two. Aggressive behaviour online and off is never tolerated, for example.
What should the policy cover?
When drafting a social media policy an employer should carefully consider its purpose and objectives, weighing up factors such as the employer’s attitude towards social media use in the workplace (will use be encouraged or discouraged?), the nature of the employer’s business (a young, cool, table tennis playing start up at Silicon Roundabout is unlikely to want to have the same social media policy as a more traditional City organisation), the workplace environment, and just how stupid some of its employees have the potential to be (if in doubt just dig out the damning snaps from the most recent office Christmas party).
Nevertheless, most policies should at least include appropriate restrictions to:
- Limit personal social media use during work time
- Protect the employer’s confidential information and intellectual property
- Prevent infringement of third party IP
- Prevent discrimination, harassment or bullying
- Prevent liability for discriminatory or defamatory comments posted by employees
- Prevent the misuse of personal data belonging to other employees, or customers
- Protect the employer’s reputation.
Can employees’ use of social media be monitored?
A policy can address use of social media outside office hours, and regardless of whether an employer’s device is used. However, employers should remember that the Information Commissioner’s Employment Practices Code explains that employees have legitimate expectations that they can keep their personal lives private and that they are entitled to a degree of privacy in the work environment. If employers wish to monitor their workers, they should be clear about the purpose, and satisfied that the particular monitoring arrangement is not excessive, and is justified by real benefits that will be delivered. This is increasingly becoming an area of focus for Claimants who may try to allege that an employer’s actions in monitoring their personal messages is a breach of their right to a private life. A well drafted social media policy could help employers rebut such an argument.
When is disciplinary action appropriate?
Employees can do and say unwise things when using social media, often in the heat of the moment and without thought, or on the mistaken assumption that their words won’t be seen by anyone except their friends. As with all disciplinary issues, employers should follow a fair procedure (with reference to its disciplinary policy) and ensure that any sanction is reasonable in all the circumstances. They should consider whether employee training on the topic may be appropriate.
As social media continues to grow and become even more ingrained in our day-to-day lives, the need for a tailored social media policy will only increase.
If you’d like to know more, please contact John D. McGonagle, email@example.com (PwC Legal IP/IT and Commercial team) or Jonathan Harries, firstname.lastname@example.org (PwC Legal Employment team).