Why employers must have a strong social networking policy

by 27 Oct 2011

Social networking in the workplace is here to stay - despite an increasing number of organisations preferring to ban the activity.

According to a recent report, WorkLifeWeb 2011, 33% of workplaces have banned or discouraged social media in the office. (Up from 20% last year).

But what many employers don't realise is it doesn't really matter if you ban it in the workplace - employees will still have access to social media outside the physical office.

That means they can still post comments that may be detrimental to work colleagues or may tarnish an employer's reputation.

Therefore it is vital to educate employees about the appropriate use of social media and at the same time have a strong social media policy in place.

Recent high profile court cases have highlighted the need for social networking and 'IT use' policies to cover activities outside the workplace as well as within the office.

Social networking is one of those rare occasions when social change occurs rapidly - without regulation. Organisational policies and criminal law are all lagging behind the rapid technological and social changes that have occurred with the advent of mass social networking.

If you don't write your policy with the end in mind you could be wasting your time.

Workplace policies are written to guide and advise staff on acceptable standards of conduct within the workplace. Mostly staff never need to refer to policies - commonsense and practical problem solving are sufficient to resolve most issues - but not all.

When things get difficult and complicated employers and employees fall back on written policies to dictate how a matter should be dealt with. Investigators, lawyers and the courts are guided by these documents too.

Giving an investigator a well-written and clear policy regarding social networking will make any investigation more efficient and more specific in its findings.

Challenges facing decision makers are lessened when a proper investigation process has been followed and clear findings made - and so is the time and stress in dealing with employee misconduct.

In times of rapid change, as we are seeing with the development of social media, it is critical to stay ahead of the game. You must determine what is OK and what is not OK for your organisation - and put it in writing.

Of course "putting it on paper" is not always sufficient - as numerous other articles will attest - but it's a good start. Education, information and upholding policy is also critical to maintaining the desired conduct within your business.

Many people are closely monitoring new cases as they emerge from the courtroom to determine what is acceptable and what is not. But you don't have to wait for this often slow, inadequate process.

While legal precedents provide excellent guidance, in the end each case is decided on its own merits. So even being presented with a seemingly identical set of circumstances won't guarantee the same outcome in court.

The only way to ensure that your staff conduct themselves appropriately is to make decisions about the conduct - write a good policy and enforce it. 

The courts will enforce your staff policy provided you have observed procedural fairness and developed a fair policy with good education.

In the recent case of Damien O'Keefe v Williams Muir's Pty Ltd T/A Troy Williams The Good Guys [2011] FWA 5311 (August 11, 2011) an unfair dismissal application was dismissed in part because of the strong policies held by the Good Guys company.

The employee had been sacked for serious misconduct after posting derogatory comments about the employer on his Facebook page.

And despite the employee making the comments on a personal computer outside of work hours, the court found in favour of the Good Guys.

This was largely because the company had a clear and comprehensive employee handbook covering the way staff should communicate with each other as well as firm bullying and harassment policies.

There's a compelling message there for all employers.

About the author

Harriet Stacey is the co-founder and principal of Wise Workplace Investigations. Harriet specialises in investigations and disciplinary processes assisting workplaces to become free of bullying and improve professional conduct. She holds qualifications in forensic psychology, education and investigation.