Following the significant increase in the use of social networking websites, Acas has commissioned research to highlight some of the potential benefits and pitfalls for both employees and employers of the use of social media and to provide some useful guidance.

Recruitment

Some employers are now using social media as a means of recruitment by advertising job vacancies on social networking websites. There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself, however, employers should not rely on just one means of advertisement. It is instead recommended that at least two recruitment methods be used as this will allow a wider range of applicants to apply for the job.

Unbeknown to many job applicants, it is becoming increasingly common for employers to look at the social networking pages of job applicants as a preliminary screening process before deciding whether or not to invite them for interview. Employers may be looking for evidence of what they consider to be inappropriate language or behaviour and there is nothing unlawful in this, assuming the individual’s social networking profile allows access by the public. However, employers need to be careful that they do not discriminate against a candidate by refusing to interview them or offer them the role on the basis of information obtained from their social networking profile. Following the changes to discrimination law introduced by the Equality Act 2010, an individual could, for example, successfully bring a claim for discrimination if an employer refuses to interview them due to a perception that they have a protected characteristic e.g. that they are homosexual or of a particular race, even if this is not in fact correct.

Performance

Social networking sites can offer genuine opportunities to network for work purposes. However, employers may also have a legitimate concern that employees are spending excessive amounts of time during working hours on such networking sites for personal reasons which can adversely affect productivity.

Employers therefore need to develop a clear policy on the use of social networking sites in the workplace. If social networking is permitted for work purposes the guidelines for such use need to be clear. Similarly, if employees are permitted to access websites such as Facebook for personal use during work hours, it is advisable for employers to set clear guidelines e.g. by clarifying that such use is only permitted at lunch time. However, the research conducted suggested that employers should take a common sense approach and focus on the output of their employees rather than scrutinising and managing their time too closely.

Where employers do permit the use of social networking sites, they also need to be aware that, where employers choose to spend their breaks and lunchtimes at their computers on social networking websites, there are potential health and safety implications as they will not be getting the requisite amount of time away from their screens. Employees should therefore be briefed on the importance of taking time away from their screens.

Defamation

Whether or not social networking is used for professional or personal reasons, there is the risk that one careless or misjudged comment by an employee could lead to negative publicity for the employer. Therefore, employers should ensure that employees are aware that any comments which may damage the employer’s reputation could result in disciplinary action and this is most likely to be achieved by the inclusion of a relevant clause in a social networking policy. However, should employers find themselves in the position where they are contemplating disciplinary proceedings against an employee, ACAS advise that the employer first considers the "moral intensity" of the comment in question and what damage has been done, as any action taken by the employer must be proportionate to the comment and the damage caused.

Bullying

It is now possible for bullying of employees to take place by way of comments on social networking websites and blogs and it may be difficult for an employer to identify such behaviour. There is also the issue of whether such conduct is the responsibility of the employer at all where it occurs outside of work hours.

In order to try and address this issue, employers should update their policies on bullying, clarifying the position in respect of social media and what will amount to unacceptable conduct. Furthermore, if an employer becomes aware that an employee is being bullied online, the employer may wish to consider monitoring email communications and the use of social networking sites, although the use of such monitoring must be communicated to the employees concerned.

Practical steps for employers:

  • Consult with employees and introduce a clear written policy on the use of social networking websites, giving clear guidance to employees on what use of such sites is permissible during work hours, what conduct will be deemed to be unacceptable and what employees can and cannot say about their employer on such sites.
  • Update the disciplinary and grievance policies to include social networking and provide examples of what sort of conduct will be considered to be gross misconduct. Brief employees to ensure they are aware of the updated policies.
  • Update bullying policies to include reference to social media and provide guidance on what conduct will be deemed to be unacceptable.
  • Brief employees on the importance of taking regular rest breaks away from their computers.

Read the research findings and social networking guidance on the Acas website.