Employers would be well advised to come to terms with the arrival of Facebook and its ilk. For anyone who has managed to miss the arrival of this phenomenon, according to the website “Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.”
What perhaps should be added is that this utility is frequently used by employees during work hours, on work computers and that personal information on the site can be available to the public or sections of the public. Previously the issue was perhaps less relevant due to people using blogs anonymously, however sites such as Facebook require people to identify themselves.
Dealing with one issue at a time…
Thousands of employees have been banned by employers from using the social networking site. IT experts have been inundated with requests to block access to this site and other sites which encourage time-wasting in the office such as MySpace and Hotmail. With 31 million users worldwide and over 2 million in the UK alone, Facebook is something which employers should not ignore. Although some people claim to (and perhaps do) use the site for business purposes, on the whole the site is used socially.
Have a clear internet policy setting out exactly what is and what is not acceptable. A consistent approach should be taken to the application of the policy and it should be regularly reviewed and communicated to all employees. It is a practical question for the employer to decide whether they want to ban these sort of sites in general or whether they simply want to restrict usage. Law firm Allen & Overy have recently had to reverse their ban on staff access to the Facebook website following a number of staff complaints. The turnaround by Allen & Overy has led to some ridicule in the press, including an article in Legal Week over a spoof ban by Facebook themselves preventing their staff viewing the Allen & Overy website.
Bringing the company into disrepute
Facebook users often put very sensitive information on to the website about their personal lives and about their employers. A group known as ‘I have dossed around on Facebook all day and consequently have done no work’ has been set up and has over 240 members. It would not be hard to envisage Employment Tribunal cases being won or lost based on information contained on a Facebook page. For example discriminatory or libellous remarks may be made on such pages, comments about colleagues and indiscreet mention of a weekend’s activities are all things which others may have access to.
Business associates of the employer may also have access to the site and so the question as to whether the employee has brought the employer into disrepute arises. A business associate may be less keen to do business with your company if they believe the employees to be a bunch of work shy lager louts (the sort of information people seem keen to share on their personal pages).
It is advisable to include within the employee’s contract of employment and within the company’s disciplinary procedures a clause which highlights the fact that it is gross misconduct to bring the company into disrepute. This makes it clear from the outset that such behaviour will not be tolerated. If these sites are not banned by the company, consider guidelines as to appropriate use.
Interview candidates be aware!
Picture this, you have an interview next week, you’ve read up on the company, you’ve had your suit dry-cleaned and you know you are qualified for the job. Our advice is to stop and think what is on your Facebook page (or other equivalent website). What is to stop your potential future employer searching your details on the internet and finding your Facebook page? Think about what is contained on the page and whether you would want your current boss or future boss to read it. Providing there is no discriminatory element to the interviewer’s decision not to hire you, there is no reason why they cannot take this information into account. Comments on Facebook pages about ‘skiving’ and ‘being out of it at the weekend’ may not set you in the best light at this crucial stage in applying for a job.
So we have all been warned of the dangers of Facebook. In summary our advice would be to monitor use carefully (within the bounds of your internet policy and data protection laws) and take a practical and consistent approach to usage. If necessary consider blocking access to the site, allowing for exceptions to be made where it could genuinely be used as a business tool. Don’t forget that copyright laws can easily be breached, for example if an individual sends a copy of a celebrity interview protected by copyright laws to friends on the networking site. Employers should be aware that they could be held vicariously liable for such breaches.
Employees, learn from Tom Beech, a former Argos employee who was dismissed for gross misconduct after setting up a Facebook networking group entitled ‘I Work At Argos and Can’t Wait To Leave Because It’s Sh**’. According to the Sun newspaper, Tom regretted his actions and commented, “My mistake was to sound off on Facebook. I wish I’d moaned at a mate”.