In light of the significant increase of internet and social media usage over recent years, ACAS has now published some helpful guidance for employers on the implications of social networking within the workplace. The guidance considers the impact of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube and provides tips for employers on how best to tackle these new issues.

It is estimated that the misuse of the internet and social networking by workers costs Britain’s economy billions of pounds each year and studies have indicated that, on average, workers spend seven hours online per week. This is, therefore, an issue that employers must take seriously.

Summary of the ACAS Guidance

The Guidance is broken down into five individual factsheets, which each address different problems posed by social media and provide advice on how employers can address them, as follows:

  1. Managing Performance

One of the main concerns for employers who make social media available to their staff is that of time wasting. In addition, more and more employees are now able to work remotely, which raises unique challenges for performance management. There are also health and safety concerns as to whether employees are getting sufficient time away from their desk / computer each day.

In response to these concerns, ACAS advises that employers:

  • draw up a policy on the use of social media whilst at work. The policy should make it clear when and how social media can be used within the organisation and should be clearly linked to disciplinary procedures. Training should also be provided to staff in this respect
  • educate employees of the risks of using VDUs and IT equipment from a health and safety perspective
  • give managers guidelines on remote / home-working. Managers should be reminded that the basic rules of effective performance management still apply to those employees not based in the office. Accordingly, regular performance reviews and an ongoing dialogue with staff should be maintained.
  1. Recruitment

Many employers are already using social media to advertise vacancies and recruit employees. However, ACAS warns that this practice risks exacerbating social exclusion for those who do not have access to the internet and therefore recommends that employers always use at least two different recruitment channels.

There is also an increasing trend for employers to screen prospective candidates by reviewing their facebook page / blogs etc before deciding whether to invite them for an interview. ACAS warns employers of the risk of a finding of discrimination against them if they refuse to interview or select a candidate because of personal information contained on their social networking pages.

  1. Discipline and Grievances

The key question in this respect is how does an employer apply its disciplinary rules to social media activity, much of which will be conducted outside of working hours and off work premises. For example, when updating a blog, is an employee legitimately posting their own personal views or could they still be held to be a representative of their employer? ACAS also identifies that the speed at which online activities take place can lead employers to making kneejerk reactions and bypassing their normal disciplinary procedures. In addition, employers need to be aware of employees using social media sites to air their grievances. In summary, ACAS advises employers to:  

  • set clear guidelines as to when employees are seen to be representing the company and what personal views they can express
  • include specific reference to social networking in discipline and grievance policies
  • treat “electronic behaviour” the same way you would treat “non-electronic behaviour”
  • remember the benefits of old fashioned face-to-face interaction which can often resolve issues informally at an early stage
  1. Bullying

Social media tools and technologies such as smart phones mean that bullying and social exclusion between employees can be more easily conducted, particularly outside the workplace. Whilst it is not possible for an employee to make a specific claim of bullying to the Employment Tribunal, they could make a claim under the discrimination laws, if that bullying was based on one of the statutory “protected characteristics”, i.e. race, sex, age etc.

ACAS recommends that the key step for employers to take in this respect is to update their bullying and disciplinary policies to include specific guidance on the use of social media. Employers should also consider widening bullying policies to cover “cyber bullying” and ensure that employees are made aware that any electronic activity may be monitored.

  1. Defamation, Data Protection and Privacy

Having employees promote their employer’s brand online can be a fast, effective and cheap method of marketing. However, it is hard for employers to have absolute control over what is posted on the internet and there is, of course, the risk of bad publicity or of employees publishing sensitive commercial data. Employers will, understandably, wish to monitor their employees’ online activity. However, ACAS warns that heavy-handed monitoring can lead to bad feeling within an organisation, as well as being at risk of breaching privacy laws.

ACAS recommends that the way forward for employers is to:

  • consider developing separate guidance on the use of blogs and social networking, making it clear that employees may face disciplinary action if they post any comments that may damage the company’s reputation
  • inform employees if it plans to monitor social media activity. An employer needs to be able to justify the use of monitoring by showing that the benefits outweigh any possible adverse impact on employees.

Finally, the Guidance provides practical tips on what a social media policy should contain.

The full Guidance can be obtained from the ACAS website: www.acas.org.uk