Opinion: Could your staff sue for social media negligence?

Organisations have gone to extreme measures to restrict staff social media access and activities in the workplace. But with these channels presenting an opportunity for greater brand advocacy, recruitment and sales, has the tide turned on organisations’ obligations to support rather than suppress staff efforts in social? Roger Christie reveals a new take on social media risk mitigation

Opinion: Could your staff sue for social media negligence?

Organisations have gone to extreme measures to restrict staff social media access and activities in the workplace. But with these channels presenting an opportunity for greater brand advocacy, recruitment and sales, has the tide turned on organisations’ obligations to support rather than suppress staff efforts in social? Roger Christie reveals a new take on social media risk mitigation

In early 2014, TV presenter Charlotte Dawson tragically took her own life following a long battle with depression. Contributing to her troubled state, Dawson had been the target of repeated, vicious cyberbullying at the hands of anonymous social media trolls. 

In an interview on the topic after her death, Media Report host Richard Aedy spoke with journalist Ginger Gorman – herself a victim of trolling – highlighting a key issue and concern for the media industry: “Every media organisation is encouraging their staff to engage on social media… Did you ever think, ‘Hang on – does the ABC have some kind of duty of care towards me?’” 

Though an extreme example of the risks associated with social media, what happened to Charlotte Dawson is nonetheless tragic. Her situation highlights the need for greater support and investment in an area often ignored within most organisations. A need that will only increase in the coming years – let me explain.

Cost and credibility driving shift from employer to employee on social media

Telstra first released its now popularised ‘3 Rs’ social media policy back in 2009. Like many social media policies at the time, the intent was to raise awareness of these new methods of communication while also informing employees of their responsibilities when representing the business. In doing so, they aimed to protect organisations from rogue employees, or at least encourage them to think twice before posting. It certainly wasn’t a call to arms supported by a 12-week social media training program for staff.

But this was the age when Facebook was free and building branded communities online meant organisations could still largely control their message in a new medium. Not so today. Organic reach is done, and those large communities are now both an ongoing cost to access and manage, if they’re even used that way. 

Over the past 12-24 months, we’ve seen a real shift in organisations encouraging staff to promote their business and activities online due to two main factors – cost and credibility. Industry is moving away from investing solely in authoritative, prized brand assets on Facebook and LinkedIn as these communities take time and money to build, manage and extract value from. Conversely, investing in social media’s lifeblood – content – for distribution through less ‘official’ channels – staff – is much more affordable, and credible. When traditional institutions are considered far less trustworthy than ‘people like us’, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, why fight the trends?

But as more and more staff are being encouraged to use these previously ‘contraband’ channels, rarely is equal effort placed on skilling, equipping and protecting these staff with extra responsibilities. As organisations seek any means available to compete in the digital age (see the recent article exploring the idea of ‘social capital’), they are forgetting the inherent risks of social media engagement. And I’m not referring just to brand and reputation factors here – as per Richard Aedy’s question to Ginger Gorman, if organisations are encouraging use for commercial benefit, they now have a duty of care to ensure staff are supported from the risks they face when conducting business practices online.

Employee empowerment creates employer risk across all industries

But isn’t this challenge unique to media and other, very public-facing industries like sport and celebrity? It’s of course very unlikely the average employee would face such severe trolling as experienced by Charlotte Dawson. So, why should other industries review measures designed to support employees if they don’t have the same public profile? Consider these scenarios:

  • A sales employee with a technology vendor encouraged to use their LinkedIn profile to identify and engage prospective clients, who unknowingly reveals commercially sensitive information to a prospect about to join a competitor;
  • A divisional head with a professional services firm encouraged to share internal thought leadership content with their Twitter network, only to provide the wrong response to a question outside their area of expertise that leads to litigation; or
  • An HR manager with a bank actively reviewing and reaching out to candidates on LinkedIn, who receives a deluge of personal abuse from disgruntled applicants when a planned hiring program is shelved.

All leverage an employee’s built network, all could lead to negative consequences to both the individual and organisation, and yet all fall in a grey area around who’s responsible. But, really, for any employee from any industry encouraged to share corporate information, news or campaigns via their own personal social media profiles, the same risks exist. 

In an effort to deliver cost-effective reach for corporate messages, any individual is now exposed to comments, questions, complaints or – at worst – abuse they are likely ill-equipped to manage. When leveraging staff social media advocacy, are organisations inadvertently putting their people – and themselves – at risk?

Mindset change is required to drive performance and mitigate social media risk 

This is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Propel recently worked with a large financial services organisation that, in leveraging staff advocacy and networks, met concern and confusion from staff right up to the board level. In the rush to harness the potential of employees’ referral networks they overlooked just how much training and support would be required once responses came back. 

But while ‘technical skills’ are often the source of blame, they are very rarely the root cause: mindset is. Training should never simply focus on ‘what’ staff should do in social media, but ‘why’. Focusing on ‘what’ (e.g. ‘Please post this on your own social media channels.’) creates problems and reduces the role of social to one of information distribution only. It removes purpose, relevance, context and authenticity – all key elements when doing business in the digital age. If staff – from the shop floor to the boardroom – understand the importance of building community and rapport with people online, the two-way dynamic of value exchange, and the realities of trolling, they will be in a much stronger position to drive performance and mitigate risk.

As attempts to harness the potential of networks and channels increase, it’s worth considering what your own organisational mindset is around social. Are you heading towards risk or return?

Case Study: the ABC’s Social Media Self-Defence Training Course

Rod McGuinness understands first-hand the pressures of working in the shadows of social media abuse. Over the past six-and-a-half years, Rod has worked closely with presenters and producers to manage the real and unavoidable presence of cyberbullying as ABC Radio’s Social Media Lead. But while acknowledging trolling is sadly a part of broadcast life, several years ago Rod decided to introduce a program to help relevant ABC staff manage its threat and impact on their wellbeing.

The ABC’s Social Media Self-Defence Training Course is one of the few corporate responses to roll its sleeves up and focus on management, empowerment and practical guidance for staff, rather than policy measures designed to protect corporate reputation. 

“Whilst the benefits of being active on social media are great, there are also serious implications on many platforms where ABC staff receive threatening messages, cyberhate and violent or explicit content in the form of images and/or texts. We have a duty of care to support our staff that experience this in the workplace and it is from that starting point that we developed a Social Media Self-Defence Training Course. 

“It identifies types of abusive and threatening behaviour, legal implications and the ongoing management and self-care of all staff working online. It has been going for more than three years now, it is evolving as the platforms and users do, and it’s something I’m very proud of as part of my role at the ABC,” Mr McGuinness said.


About the author 
Roger Christie is founder and managing director of Propel – a consultancy that helps organisations get better business outcomes with social by aligning social strategy with organisation goals.



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