ACAS recently published a research paper on the use of social media in the workplace, called “Workplaces and Social Networking: The implications for Employment Relations“, as well as some very useful guidelines on how to draft a social media policy. It’s also about time that ACAS provided some guidance in what is becoming an increasingly difficult area.
The research paper is well worth a read for anyone interested in this area or not persuaded of the need for a social media policy and it contains nine recommendations for implementing a policy. It was commissioned from the Institute for Employment Studies and comprises a review of academic papers, surveys and reported incidents over roughly the last ten years. It is not limited to just the employment law issues raised by social media usage, but also cyber-bullying, access to and use of the internet in the workplace, the perils of using social media in the recruitment process, the issues to think about in formulating a policy and provides some useful conclusions.
For me there are two particularly significant points that come out.
Firstly, a policy on social media usage has to be considered in the context of the business’s wider policies. For instance, cyber-bullying is still bullying. Discrimination online is still the same as discrimination offline. Employers need to have policies to deal with these issues whether they happen in the staff canteen, the car park, or on Facebook. The issue with cyber-bullying is that it can take place over a wider area and time frame, i.e. outside the workplace. Why should that concern an employer though? If bullying is occurring via Facebook or other platforms and the common link between the perpetrator and victim is that they both work for the same employer, the poor old employer might be vicariously liable if it took no steps to address it once it became aware of the problem.
The report suggest employers could offer a 24/7 helpline or “help point” to guide cyber-bullied employees. Larger employers may have this facility anyway and it is a “facility” that helps make the employer look soft and cuddly, but it won’t be an option for smaller employers who can’t afford to set one up or buy access to the helplines that exist on the market. Neither will it enable an employer to escape liability if a claim does arise. The only way of mitigating (not removing) that risk is for;
“Employers … to consider extending their workplace bullying policy to explicitly cover cyber-bullying both within and outside working time.” (p.29)
None of the three case studies the report looked at (HMRC, ACAS or BT) had specific, stand-alone cyber-bullying policies, instead they relied on their existing anti-bullying policies. What this demonstrates is that employers need to have a joined-up approach to the issue.
The second stand-out issue was to do with whether employers should adopt a blanket ban on social media at work and it was timely because, according to another survey, this time carried out by Clearswift, a software security firm (and reported on by the online People Management journal)the number of employers now preventing staff accessing social media in the workplace has more than doubled over the last year, mainly because of security fears. Managers are said to be concerned about “high-profile data leaks”, although my guess is that that is a smokescreen for concerns about workers’ productivity being compromised.
The conclusions to the ACAS report suggest that a blanket ban is pointless;
“in some of the high-profile cases of unfair dismissals for what employers believe is inappropriate use of social networking sites, the location of the employee when posting comments is immaterial. This potentially means that any employers who believe they have protected themselves through a blanket ban on use of social media through company IT systems may be misguided. This also means that employers who do not provide IT access to some staff or do not have IT in their workplaces cannot afford to ignore the issue.”(p.30)
This is probably the greatest challenge to employers – how do you deal with bad behaviour outside the office that impacts upon the business? Education of employees is the key, backed up by clear guidelines must be the answer. This is all sound, sensible advice but you can boil it down to what I call “the pub test”. It’s simple: if you were in a pub and your boss was standing next to you, would you call him (or her) a pillock, or worse? Probably not. Why then do it on a social network, especially Facebook, where your boss may be one of your “friends” or, just as likely, one of your “friends” will pass on your offending comment to your boss? Once it’s out there, it’s out there.
What I find refreshing about the report though is that it is not all negative. Indeed it recognises that there are positives to be drawn from social networking;
“it should also be considered that social networking can have specific benefits in the employment relations context. For example, blogging can be a positive action, allowing employees to present the human face of a company, if an employer is relaxed about allowing employees to blog. More widely, one of the main benefits of social networking, according to the organisations contacted for this research, is the potential business benefits of this medium, which are not yet fully understood. Allowing employees the freedom to use social networking sites can therefore be a positive step, help to develop the workforce’s knowledge of social media, and be part of a wider strategy of digital engagement with customers” (p.31)
The comments on blogging are particularly welcome! Employers that ban employees from blogging on work topics are losing out on a free source of publicity. To say that employees might say the wrong thing misses the point – educate them on what shouldn’t be said and let them get on with it! Businesses need to come to terms with social networking for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it might actually bring some benefit.
For more reading on how social media can benefit businesses one of the best and most enthusiastic sources of information and advice around is lawyer-turned-consultant Julian Summerhayes.
The report finishes with nine recommendations, which include the need for policies to be simple, to se tout what is acceptable behaviour online, and it to be drafted in consultation with the workforce/trade union to gain legitimacy, amongst others.
ACAS also helpfully published a document summarising the report entitled “Social Networking and … How to develop a policy”, which comprise two sides of A4 paper and give seven concise reasons why an employer should have a “written policy on the ‘acceptable use of social networking at work’. These reasons include enabling the employer to protect itself from liability for the actions of its workers, comply with the law on discrimination, helping line managers manage performance and, crucially, give employees clear guidelines on what they can and cannot say about the company. The document then gives advice on the issues the policy should cover, which include network security, acceptable behaviour for use of the internet and email, smart phones, blogging/tweeting and social network sites, data protection and monitoring. A social media policy should set out how use of social media fits within the employer’s own business objectives.
For any ostriches out there hoping the issue of social media will go away, it won’t. A good read of this very useful ACAS papers will be a good introduction to the steps to take.