Social media has become increasingly prevalent in society. In Australia, over 60% of internet users access social media sites, with many visiting everyday or at least a few times a week.  

Social media takes a number of forms, such as:  

  • Social Networking Sites.
  • Video and photo sharing.
  • Micro-blogging (Twitter).
  • Weblogs.
  • Discussion boards.  

Employers are not immune from the effects of social media.

Social Media and Organisations

It has become increasingly important about what people think or say about an organisation on a social media forum. Positive or negative statements can have a huge impact on an organisation’s success and reputation.

Social media when used effectively can provide many benefits to an organisation. It provides a platform in which organisations can develop and build relationships with clients, community and stakeholders. It does this by increasing awareness and raising an organisation’s profile amongst the online community.  

Another benefit is the ability to use social media for marketing purposes. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be used to promote events, raise awareness and broaden databases.

Although social media can provide a number of benefits, it can also impact an organisation negatively, particularly when used as a platform for disgruntled employees to voice their frustrations. This form of harm, which is also the most common, is known as “employee rants” or “work rants” on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.  

Many employers have put in steps to prevent employees accessing social media sites during work hours. These steps, whilst decreasing the amount of time employees spend accessing sites at work, do not stop employees from using social media outside office hours in a way that negatively affects an organisation.

It is not uncommon that employees come home after a day at work and discuss or update their hundreds of ‘friends’ with details of their work day. This may seem harmless, but when an employee has something negative to say and makes links to their workplace it can be extremely damaging to an organisation’s reputation.  

One of the overarching problems is that employees find it difficult to separate public and personal information. It is often forgotten that when a comment is published online it is permanent and the author loses control.

Cases

In some circumstances, employees can face disciplinary action or dismissal for using social media sites in an incorrect way. This will be dependent on content and circumstances.

Damien O’Keefe v Williams Muir’s Pty Ltd t/a Troy Williams The Good Guys [2011] FWA 5311

An employee was dismissed after posting a comment that was offensive and contained inappropriate language towards a colleague on Facebook.  

The employee argued that he had maximum privacy settings and he had a limited number of colleagues as friends.  

However, it stated in the employer’s ‘employee handbook’ that behaviour of that kind was not acceptable and he was dismissed. Fair Work Australia (FWA) upheld the dismissal.  

Glen Stusel v Linfox Australia Pty Ltd [2011] FWA 8444

An employee was dismissed after making derogatory comments about his employer on Facebook. FWA reinstated the employee noting that the comments were ‘foolish’ and not to be taken too seriously. FWA also referenced the employee’s 22 years of previous service with the employer without incident.

FWA noted that if the employer had a recognized policy in place, outlining acceptable and unacceptable conduct on social media sites, their decision may have been different.  

Protecting Your Organisation

Many organisations have taken steps to protect themselves from the harm that can be caused by incorrect use of social media.  

Social Media Policies

Having a social media policy in place will set out guidelines and expectations for the use of social media sites in and outside of the workplace. It is important that these policies:  

  • Outline all social media sites that the policy will cover, including any future sites;
  • Provide a guideline for all who use your organisation’s name or publish information on behalf of your organisation for recruitment, marketing or business purposes;
  • Outline expectations of general social media use by your employees; and
  • Outline the consequences of a breach of policy.

Social Media Awareness

It is important that employees understand, are aware and know where to find any social media policies that are in place at an organisation. Social media training and awareness campaigns are useful to increase awareness amongst employees about the use of social media in an organisation and how it can affect an organisation. This will also negate an argument that employee’s were not aware of the employer’s expectation in relation to the use of social media.

Other Measures

Employers are not the only groups being affected by social media in a negative way. Many schools and associations are in similar situations. Earlier this year, a prestigious, Jewish, all girls’ school in Brooklyn, New York implemented a blanket ban and introduced fines to any student who used a social networking site, in order to protect the safety of their students.  

Fining employees may seem extreme. However, if employees are aware of the consequences associated with publishing damaging information online, be it a fine or other disciplinary action, and yet continue use social media to the detriment of their employee, it may be a useful tool to reduce incorrect use.  

Conclusion

For organisations to remain relevant and competitive they must engage with technology, including the benefits of social media. Because of this it is more important than ever for organisations to be aware of and involved addressing harms that may be caused to their profitability, viability, reputation by incorrect material being disseminated by employees.  

By implementing measures as suggested in this article, it will give that organisation the best possibility to reap the benefits that social media sites provide while avoiding the obvious pitfalls.