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Social networking – risks and rewards

More than half of employees use social networking sites at work. This report by ACAS in the UK discusses the challenges and opportunities that social media present for employers and includes case studies outlining what good practice looks like.

There are obvious risks for employers if employees refer to their work on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The report quotes several high-profile examples of disciplinary action being taken by employers in such cases. A Waterstones employee wrote an allegedly humorous blog in the course of which he complained about his shifts and referred to his manager as “evil boss”. The employee was dismissed following a disciplinary hearing but successfully challenged the case on appeal.

So what should employers do to protect themselves? The first answer is to “have a policy” on use of the internet and social media. Employees post material about their views on and experiences of employment which they would not do using other media, so employers need to clarify what kind of behaviour is and is not acceptable.

The main message is that online conduct should not differ from offline conduct, so a reference in the social media policy to existing conduct guidelines may be enough. Employees need to bear in mind that everything they say on the internet could at some stage be made public.

Some tricky issues can arise in developing policies. For example, how far should employers monitor employees’ use of social networking? Legitimate concerns about security have to be balanced against employees’ right to privacy. Neither BT nor Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), whose policies and practice are profiled in the report, monitor their employees through social networking sites.

In general Acas encourages employers not to get too anxious about what employees say about them online, arguing for a common-sense approach that allows employees to let off steam. In terms of getting the balance right, the report recommends that policies on internet and social media use should be drawn up in consultation with staff.

Concerns are also expressed about cyber-bullying. This can include for example sending offensive emails, posting blogs on social networking sites and sharing someone’s private data online. Acas advice is for employers to have strong anti-bullying policies in place and to ensure these are updated in the light of new kinds of technology. 

According to a US survey, 45 percent of employers check job applicants’ social network before hiring. However the most common reasons given for rejecting candidates were lifestyle rather than employment based, including postings of “provocative or inappropriate” photographs. Acas notes the scope this brings for discrimination claims and suggests the onus is on employers to act responsibly.

But it’s not all about risk: the report also recommends that organisations consider how they can reap the benefits of social networking. It points to evidence that staff may reciprocate organisational trust in allowing internet and social media access by promoting the organisation in return, and suggests that employees blogging about their working lives can help present the human face of the organisation. Allowing employees freedom to use social networking sites can help to develop their knowledge of social media and be part of a wider strategy of digital engagement with customers.

Inevitably social networking sites tend to blur further the boundaries between public and private life – already blurred by the shift to more flexible working. Clearly there is no going back to old assumptions about appropriate management style but in many respects we have yet to fully think through what the changes mean for line managers.

This report is available from the ACAS website http://www.acas.gov.uk at http://www.acas.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=3182&p=0