Accessing social-networking sites at work – a note of caution

April 1, 2009

Many organisations allow their employees to access the internet during working hours, and employers often have specific policies in place to regulate employees’ access and usage. Such policies often contain stipulations in relation to when internet access is permitted and, in particular, prohibitions on accessing inappropriate websites and materials. One significant issue facing employers in relation to internet access at work is the rapid growth in popularity of social-networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.

What are social-networking sites?

Social-networking sites offer individuals the opportunity to meet and share friends and information across larger groups and can be an efficient way of keeping up to date with friends. Set-ups allow individuals to send public or private messages and, among other things, to join groups on almost any conceivable topic, from tongue-in-cheek clubs to worksites, societies and campaign groups.

What risks may arise from their use in the workplace?

In our high-pressured, technological society, social-networking sites can and do have a role to play. However, individuals who use them need to be aware that the comments they share can, depending on their nature, have serious implications and, sometimes, legal consequences. Negative, disparaging or damaging comments made by individuals can quickly become accessible across a very wide network, as can sensitive or confidential employer-related information. This can give rise to a risk of claims, and authors of defamatory and libellous material can be legally responsible for their actions.

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees but will also generally be vicariously liable for actions of their employees at work. Where damaging, offensive or disparaging comments are posted, for example by students in relation to lecturers and other institution staff, this can give rise to complaints from those who are the subject of such comments that the institution will need to deal with. Employees who make damaging, offensive or disparaging comments about other employees or their employer, or who disclose confidential employer information, may face disciplinary action, depending on the circumstances.

There have been a number of reported instances in a commercial setting where employees have faced disciplinary action, including dismissal, in relation to such matters. For example, an employee was dismissed for recording that he could not wait to leave his employer and described the organisation in unflattering terms. In another case, an employer conducted a major internal investigation when it came to light that a forum criticising the organisation had apparently been set up on Facebook by employees and former employees.

Managing the use of social-networking sites in the workplace

Although some employers have taken the step of banning any access to social-networking sites at work due to the potential risks, others recognise their increasing popularity and may permit access on clearly defined terms. Where access to such sites is permitted, an employer’s policy will typically:

• warn staff to exercise caution in relation to the information they post online;

• provide clear guidance and advice for employees about the kind of information they can and cannot post online;

• make it clear what employees can expect to be sanctioned for;

• state that any inappropriate use of the internet outside the workplace could also result in disciplinary action in accordance with the organisation’s disciplinary policy if, for example, the employee breaches confidentiality, makes any discriminatory or defamatory remarks or brings the organisation’s reputation into disrepute; and

• warn employees if their use of the internet (including social-networking sites) is being monitored.

Whatever their approach, it is clear that employers can no longer ignore the existence of such sites and their potential impact in the employment context.

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