Social Media: Benefits and Pitfalls

Most employees are very used to going on line, sending emails, tweeting and so on - indeed for many people these are essential tools in both their working life and social life. It is easy for the advances in electronic communications to outstrip an organisation's preparedness; having a well developed policy setting out rights, responsibilities and limitations on the use of such communications will help organisations prevent any unauthorised or careless use. Even the use of social media in an employee's private life needs to be considered if that impacts on their company.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Media Use

There are powerful benefits to using social media and social media networking which can enhance business reputation, create more opportunities for a company and be an effective tool to promote a business. On the other hand, abuse of social media by employees, especially when work versus private life boundaries are crossed, can have a detrimental impact on a business and, in some cases, damage the reputation of that business.

The use of sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube,Instagram, Linkedin and micro-blogging sites (e.g. Twitter) etc present many challenges to employers. We frequently receive pleas for advice from employers when an employee posts an inappropriate comment on the web which damages the reputation of the business. Even when an employee uses social media outside of working hours, comments which damage the company's reputation or portray the business in a bad light are being 'published' and may have repercussions for the employer.

The employee who posts photos of themselves partying and then boasts that next day they took a  "sickie" often forget that their team leader or manager has been included as a "friend" - even when that's not the case there is a good chance that the employer will hear about the fraudulent day off and that only spells trouble. In effect, the employee is providing the employer with 'written evidence' which could be used in an investigatory or disciplinary process.

In the UK we have seen a growing trend of employment cases involving the abuse of social networking sites. Some HR practitioners use such sites to screen potential job applicants - those photos and drunken boasts don't go down very well when you are after a new job. Employers face a number of challenges, for example:

  • Excessive use of personal social media in the workplace leading to loss of productivity

  • Risk of reputational damage/unwanted litigation to the business

  • Avoiding inappropriate use of social media without upsetting employment relations

People seem to think that social media sites are private but employees should be aware that anything they "post" is in the public domain (think of it as a postcard!), and the consequences can severely damage the employment relationship.

Written Policies

Employers are responsible for the actions of their employees whether or not they are done with the employer's knowledge or approval (vicarious liability). By having a written policy organisations can:

  • Help protect against liability for the actions of their employees, by utilising disclaimers

  • Ensure employees understand that social media messages may reflect on the employer

  • Educate employees about the consequences of disclosing or misusing confidential information (possible disciplinary action or even gross misconduct)

  • Make clear to employees who they should contact about any particular aspect of the policy

  • Prevent damage to systems

  • Avoid or reduce unnecessary time being spent on non work-related activities

Factors to consider when formulating a policy on social media use

Employers need to develop a strategy and clear policy for use of social media in their business. This policy may govern how employees should use social media, not just for business purposes but also for private usage.

Any policy needs to take account of how the business is seeking to professionally use social media and a 'one size fits all' model is unlikely to work. If it is likely to be used to promote the business:

  • Consider who should be responsible for deciding when and how to use social media   

  • Understand issues like stress and breach of rest periods around the expectation levels on employees to be fully available/accessible
  • Set some guidelines on how the organisation wishes to be perceived in the wider world

  • State the level of monitoring carried out

  • Consider how and by whom social media usage will be policed

  • State any sanctions resulting from misuse or abuse

  • Clarify ownership of contact lists and information

If organisations allow use of the company's computers for private use of Facebook, Twitter, etc., then:

  • Consider restricting use to lunch breaks or before or after work

  • A complete ban may be unenforceable or undermine morale without any real tangible benefit to the business

  • Include reference to social media in bullying/harassment policies in particular with respect to "cyber bullying"

  • Provide training to all employees on the organisation's social media policy

  • Stress the non-disclosure of business related content or workplace related topics

In an era of increasing use of social media it is important that businesses take steps to protect their organisations and employees should be made aware of the consequences of misuse. A clear policy will ensure that employees recognise the limits imposed by the business on social media usage.


Mar 2020

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