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Facing up to Facebook

13 March 2015

Millions in the UK use Facebook to communicate and organise large parts of their personal lives online.

It is no secret that Facebook has provided a number of tools that make it a powerful device not just for individuals, but for businesses and brands as well. Facebook can help spread a company’s brand and propel a business into the forefront of existing and potential customers’ minds. Indeed many companies encourage their employees to promote the business by “liking” its page.

Facebook can be used to change a company’s reputation for better or for worse. Social networking outlets offer people an arena for venting their spleen on any issues, including gripes and grievances about work. There is of course no “dislike” button (yet) on Facebook, but one wonders what reputational damage such a feature could cause.

Even posts that have nothing to do with work can create major trouble if they express extreme or unpopular views or racist comments. Many companies are understandably wary about trying to crack down on personal posts. They are, in a word, personal, and few really want to read employees’ personal posts or be known as a company that stifles personal expression.

Generally speaking employers have the right to control what employees do with the time and equipment they pay for. However, when employees use their own computers to express their own opinions on their own time, an employer’s legal rights are more limited.

There are advantages of allowing employees to use Facebook for reasons such as PR, marketing and networking with professional contacts. However companies should be concerned about the amount of time employees spend on Facebook and the type of information employees publish. For example, some information could be detrimental for an employer, such as the disclosure of trade secrets, client details or even the raucous pictures from the Christmas party.

Employees can attempt to distinguish and justify the material that they have posted on Facebook as being within a ‘private’ conversation and not visible for others to see on the public domain.  In the general context of employment law, however, this distinction has been shown to offer little protection where the company is able to demonstrate that the posts of the employee were or were likely to be detrimental to their business.

Despite these areas of concern, many companies do not have a social networking policy. Employers should find the balance between the need to protect confidential business information and uphold their reputation, whilst respecting employees’ desire to use online media. A social media policy coupled with appropriate training will help avoid these dangers.

With the law relating to social media rapidly evolving, this is an area that will continue to cause issues for companies in the coming years, but simple measures such as a well-drafted social media policy, applied as a matter of urgency, can provide peace of mind. And on the flipside employees need to exercise some discretion of their own. A comment on Facebook isn’t the equivalent of a chat with friends in the comfort of your own home. It can kick-start a chain of communication with which an employer can quite justifiably take umbrage.

Here are some helpful social media tips for employers to consider:

  • Have clear guidance on acceptable use of Facebook at work and the use of Facebook in a personal capacity where it links work, for example, making comments about the company or sending friend requests to client.
  • Remind staff that they are expected not to behave in manner which would reflect poorly on the business and its reputation
  • Link any social media policy to other relevant policies – for example, harassment & victimisation in relation to cyber bullying.
  • Have a clear process to deal with inappropriate comments (whether from employees or clients) – avoid finding yourself in muddy waters concerning “banter”.
  • In both a personal and professional capacity, it is good practice to think about the risks and opportunities posed by Facebook, and to regularly review content and accounts. By thinking about the type of problems that might arise, it is possible to plan an advance strategy to respond to crises.

Contact anyone in our employment team if you require assistance with any social media queries or need us to create or review your company’s social media policy.

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Matthew Clayton MA LLM (Cantab), CIPP/E
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Mathew Clayton
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