Discipline and Social Media
Social media can mean using the internet, sending emails, texts, and posting on blogs or websites such as Facebook, or using Twitter. We have been getting a steadily increasing number of calls about social media, from both employers and employees.
Do you have a social media policy and do your employees understand it?
A good policy is an employer's first line of defence. We consider what should go into such a policy in our podcast. Any policy should be clear about the standards of behaviour you expect from your employees, and the potential consequences if they behave inappropriately.
It is not enough to have an excellent policy; your people need to know about it and to understand the consequences of using social media inappropriately. If the employee is unaware of the potential consequences, it will be hard to justify any disciplinary action.
Who posted/emailed inappropriate comments/material?
Sometimes offending material is created by third parties, such as friends or relatives of employees. Employers do not have control over third parties and it is rarely appropriate to hold employees responsible for the actions of other people.
Where the offending material includes confidential information you may be able to discipline the employee for providing that information, or where there are issues of harassment or bullying, for encouraging that behaviour. It may also be possible to discipline your employee for bringing the company into disrepute.
However, third party situations are very difficult, and you should always take appropriate advice on your specific circumstances.
When and where did the inappropriate use occur?
If an employee behaved inappropriately in work time or using work resources it is easier to discipline them. In situations where the behaviour took place out of work time and/or using private equipment you will always need to think about whether it is appropriate for you, as an employer, to become involved.
In assessing whether it is appropriate to discipline, you need to take into account your social media policy, in what way the incident was connected to the workplace and the impact on the work place. For example, you may need to act to prevent harassment of other employees as you have a duty of care towards them.
Was it a private or a public communication?
Recent cases on social media have asked whether communications were intended for public or private use. Where something is intended for public use (for example, an open blog, public Facebook post or a email intended to be forwarded) then it is easier for employers to intervene, as the employee is considered to have given up their right to privacy.
Are you reacting reasonably?
It is very easy to overreact to comments on social media. However, it is important to keep things in perspective. Always ask yourself what the real impact of a comment is likely to be. A good rule of thumb is to treat "real world" and "cyber" behaviour in the same way. If you would not discipline for a throw away comment at a party, think carefully about whether you need to discipline for a throw away comment in an electronic forum.
Of course, there can be serious impact from comments made with social media - damage to reputation, breach of confidentiality, bullying, harassment and even discrimination claims. Employers need to tread a careful line between protecting their business and their employees, and accepting that employees have a right to privacy, and to their own opinions.
Acting proportionately and consistently is key to striking that balance. Having a comprehensive social media policy and applying it consistently will really help when you face social media issues. We talk more about developing a social media policy in our podcast.
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