Use of social media in the business context - including sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn - has become extremely popular in recent years. Whilst there are certainly clear advantages to such use, for example it offers businesses the opportunity to develop brand awareness quickly and it is an extremely useful method of communicating information to a wider circle of customers/contacts, social media use also raises a number of legal and commercial issues which businesses must be aware of regardless of whether or not they permit the use of social media within the workplace.
One of the main concerns with social media is the lack of content control (although this freedom to communicate is generally what makes it so successful). Posts are not vetted by businesses and employees are trusted to post appropriate information. As a result, this opens up the possibility of copyright infringement, confidential information being disclosed, information being posted which breaches data protection law, and defamatory or discriminatory comments being made. Comments posted by your business and employees will also have implications for brand management. Please be aware that, depending on the circumstances, employees do not necessarily have to make comments in a business context for there to be consequences for you as their employer.
From an employment law perspective, there are several issues to be aware of. In the recruitment process there is the danger of discrimination occurring considering the volume of information disclosed about individuals via social networking sites. Furthermore, your policies will need to be updated - in particular disciplinary procedures for inappropriate use of social media; performance measures - i.e. does social media use result in time wasting and, if so, how do you manage this; and bullying or discrimination among employees.
In order to exercise control over the use of social media within your business and to enable you to take disciplinary action against employees when necessary, it is essential to have a policy which sets out acceptable and unacceptable use of social media and makes it clear that any breach of the policy could result in dismissal.
In implementing a social media policy, employers will find the recent ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) guidance on social networking of some assistance. ACAS is an independent organisation that provides a variety of advice to organisations to assist them in achieving better employment relations. In addition to the guide on developing a policy, ACAS has produced fact-sheets on the following employment issues in the context of social networking: managing performance; recruitment; discipline and grievances; bullying; and defamation, data protection and privacy (all guidance can be found at: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3375).
Despite the clear legal issues, a recent survey undertaken by MacRoberts revealed that around 40% of the employers surveyed did not have any form of social media policy in place. It is essential that businesses recognise that social media is not just a fad but that it is now a way of life. Rather than hoping that it will simply disappear sometime soon, the best way to deal with social media is to know the risks and how to manage them.