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Social media can be an extremely useful tool in the workplace, with many organisations using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to promote their brand and widen their influence.  The use (or perhaps the misuse) of social media can, however, create significant risk for organisations.

What exactly do employers need to be mindful of?

Company reputation is key.  In the case of Game Retail Ltd v Laws, a manager employed by Game Retail used his personal twitter account to make offensive tweets about (variously) dentists, caravan drivers, golfers, the police and Newcastle United supporters.  Following his dismissal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed his complaint of unfair dismissal, finding that even though his tweets were private, they did have an impact on the reputation of his employer.

Employers need also be mindful of conduct amounting to harassment or discrimination via social media.

How can employers tackle these issues?

Employers should adopt a policy which sets out what is and what is not acceptable for employees using the internet, emails, phones and networking sites. The policy should explain the organisation’s view on what is acceptable in terms of both professional and personal use of social media, as well as how the organisation will deal with employees who post inappropriate content.

The policy should also make clear that it applies not only to use of social media sites using the employer’s equipment, but equally to social media sites used or accessed outside of work, or using the employee’s own equipment.

What happens when a breach of social media policy does occur?

Employers should seek to deal with any online matters in the same way that they would deal with offline matters. This might mean going through a disciplinary process with the relevant employee.

Employers should be careful about adopting a knee-jerk reaction to social media posts.  In the case of Whitham v Club 24 Ltd in which an employee made derogatory comments about her workplace on Facebook, one of which said “I think I work in a nursery and I do not mean working with plants.”   An employment tribunal found that her subsequent dismissal was unfair and that the comments made by the claimant on social media were “relatively minor”.  The tribunal held that there was nothing to suggest that the employer had suffered any embarrassment or that its relationship with clients had been harmed as a result of the post.

In a world that is increasingly focused on creating an online presence it can seem difficult for employers to find the right balance between making the most of the advantages which social media has to offer but also carefully protecting their reputation.  A clear policy should help address that balance in a transparent way.

Employers should recognise that social media is an area which is constantly evolving. What makes sense in a policy now might not be relevant in a year’s time and it is essential that employers are aware of, and reactive to, any changes in the world of social media and keep their policies under review.

Kathy Halliday is an employment partner at VWV, a national law firm with a growing office and presence in Birmingham. Kathy can be contacted on 0121 227 3711 or at khalliday@vwv.co.uk.