Social networking is here to stay – we all know that. The growth of networks such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Linked In has been phenomenal, but the headache it is causing to businesses all over the country is even bigger. Should staff be able to make use of such social networking sites during working hours or not, and what control can business have over how it is used and how it affects their reputations?
Well there is more than one school of thought at the moment.
It has been claimed by some psychologists that allowing staff to use Facebook during working hours boosts moral and actually increases productivity. ‘Facebook breaks’ have been suggested as a breather from the working day, rather like tea breaks or smoking breaks, supposedly reducing stress and allowing the worker to return to work refreshed. Other suggestions are that businesses can restrict the use of social networking sites to a couple of hours at lunch time and/or before and after normal working hours, so that employees can only access them during their own time. The argument here, of course, is that it can still create temptation for a disgruntled member of staff to complain about something that is happening in the business, whilst it is still fresh in their mind.
On the other hand, however, a recent survey of around 2000 businesses suggests that 50% have banned staff altogether from using social networking sites at work (Lloyds TSB is understood to be one of these), naturally fearful of the loss of working hours – which is understood to be millions – and the potential damage that can be done to their reputations should a member of staff decide to have a rant about the business.
The main issue with regard to ensuring that staff use social networking sites responsibly, or in line with the requirements of the business, is to have a comprehensive policy with regard to the use of technology so that staff actually know what is expected of them, and what they are – and not – allowed to do.
A recent case which highlights this perfectly is that of bar manager Miss Preece, who was dismissed by her employers Wetherspoons. Whilst working one of her shifts, Miss Preece was verbally abused and threatened by a group of people, two of whom she knew as regulars Brian and Sandra. The group was removed from the bar, but the abuse continued by telephone, with Miss Preece receiving abusive calls from someone who is believed to have been Brian and Sandra’s daughter. Fed up, and saying she couldn’t get hold of her manager to discuss it, Miss Preece decided to vent her spleen on Facebook and made what have been called ‘inappropriate’ comments about the group. A flurry of conversation followed and Brian and Sandra were named. A complaint was made to Weatherspoons and Miss Preece was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct, with Wetherspoons saying that her behaviour had damaged their reputation which had led to a breach of trust and confidence.
Miss Preece appealed against her dismissal at an employment tribunal, saying that she thought that her privacy settings on Facebook allowed only her school and work friends to view her comments. (Now, this is a mistake made by many people and one which should be looked at carefully as Facebook comments are now being used as evidence in all sorts of cases – including matrimonial ones!) On this occasion, Miss Preece’s comments were actually viewed by all 600 of her ‘friends’, and you guessed it, one of them was Brian and Sandra’s daughter.
Her appeal was dismissed with the tribunal finding her sacking fair. Amongst other reasons, the fact that Wetherspoons had a clear email and social media policy and that Miss Preece had made the comments whilst at work were held out as contributory factors to the dismissal of her claim. Wetherspoons’ policy clearly detailed its rules on the use of social media whilst at work, stating that anyone making comments that could "be found to lower the reputation of the organisation, staff or customers…" would be subject to disciplinary action. Miss Preece had signed the document, accepting its contents.
Alan Kennedy, Wosskow Brown’s employment specialists says “Whilst on this occasion the fact that Miss Preece’s comments were made at work is relevant to the outcome of the case, it is important to note that they could have been just as damaging to Wetherspoons’ reputation had they been made outside of work and she may very well have still lost her job.
It is true that social networks such as Facebook can be damaging for an employer and so all employers really should make sure they have appropriate procedures and policies in place to prevent this, and that they are up to date as things change so quickly in the world of IT and social media. However, if monitored correctly sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can also be a valuable social and professional networking tool for the business itself and are used by many to gain access to a huge audience that they wouldn’t otherwise be visible to.”
If you would like assistance in reviewing your policy, or require further advice please contact our employment law specialist, Alan Kennedy on 0114 256 4788 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org