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The two sides to social media

Posted on by from RBS

Social media can be a double-edged sword for businesses. However, a decade ago this wasn’t an issue. Back then, Facebook was in its infancy and Twitter hadn’t even been launched. Yes, this is a tool that can better your overall brand, but what are the downsides?

The good and the bad

Now, Facebook alone has more than 30 million users in the UK and social as a whole is something that most businesses can’t afford to ignore.

There are really good reasons for businesses to be active on social media. Marketing promotions and customer interaction are just two of them, helping firms grow, attracting new business and encouraging conversations.

But, as with more traditional forms of media, while reputations can be made, they can also be swiftly broken.

One way in which businesses can find themselves in trouble is through the actions of their own employees. A generation which is younger than the internet has entered the workplace and it sees social media as a right rather than a luxury.

The challenge for HR teams is to find ways of ensuring time spent on social networks doesn’t negatively impact business. Employees can be fantastic advocates for a company on platforms such as Twitter but at the same time there are risks that things can go wrong, potentially with serious legal implications.

In the media

A reasonably extreme and high profile example involved Vodafone’s official Twitter account, which was used to deal with customer complaints. One employee elected instead to send out an obscene message which, while quickly deleted, lasted long enough to be saved and subsequently sent across the internet.

In another example, cabin crew at Virgin Atlantic used Facebook to criticise passengers and claim that aircraft were full of cockroaches. While potentially amusing to the employees involved, there was a clear impact on the company’s reputation and the staff in question lost their jobs.

When does banter become damaging?

So with social media now seemingly a part of everyday life, how can HR teams prevent employees damaging a business’ brand? 

It’s not an easy task - but one necessary step is ensuring there is a company social media policy in place that spells out what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to employee behaviour on social networks.

In a scenario where an employee posts messages on a social account which criticise their employer, colleagues or clients, a common defence could be that the comments were made in jest and were just “banter.”

Should policy be set in stone?

An effective social media policy should clearly communicate and state what’s acceptable and what isn’t - therefore confirming what side of the line such comments fall on.

A good policy should also make clear what disciplinary sanctions could be imposed if an employee breaches it, thus avoiding any doubt as to the impact of misuse.

However, employers also need to bear in mind a couple of important points when it comes to potential misconduct that relates to social media. 

Firstly, businesses need to comply with the Employment Practices Code of the Data Protection Act. Therefore, if social media is intended to be used as evidence of employee misconduct, advice should be sought before investigating further.

In addition, care should also be taken if social posts are to be used as evidence in an Employment Tribunal. Employees have the right to a certain amount of privacy and Tribunals will take into account a number of additional factors such as whether a business was named and if the employee took steps to rectify the situation.

Ultimately, dealing with employee behaviour on social media isn’t clear cut. After all, social activity can take place on people’s own phones or computers and can happen outside working hours.
But irrespective of this, if there are issues which involve harassment and bullying of colleagues or bringing the company into disrepute via social media, businesses need to know how to react.

They also need to be sure they are keeping up to with developments in social media and new networks which may spring up over time.

Conversations which 10 years ago might have happened at the water cooler or via phone calls are now played out in front of a potential audience of millions. With this in mind, a clear policy and a focus on what’s acceptable – and what isn’t – should be the number one priority for businesses. 

 

John Muncey

By John Muncey

John Muncey is head of RBS Mentor, which provides consultancy and advice services to businesses across areas including employment law and HR.

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