It’s an issue that has stumped many employers at one point or another; just how far they can go in telling staff what they can and can’t post on social media.
However, according to a leading employment law solicitor, addressing this issue is key if SME owners are to avoid facing claims of vicarious liability.
Lindsey Knowles, Head of Employment Law at Kirwans law firm said that many employers are still delaying the implementation of social media policies due to uncertainly over how far they can go in stopping employees posting content that could potentially damage their business.
But, she said, doing so could result in costly legal action if a ‘fun’ post contains offensive material or images which could result in a backlash for the company.
“There is still a lot of nervousness around social media, and rightly so,” said Lindsey. “A negative comment from an employee about the business they work for sends out entirely the wrong message, while even something as innocuous as uploads of holiday snaps can become a problem if the nature of the photographs is inappropriate in relation to the nature of an employee’s work.
“But with a June 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center revealing that 77 per cent of employees access their personal social media accounts at work, the need for a social media policy setting out what is expected of employees.
“Such a policy should cover not only what employees post on their accounts, but also how the company’s own account is handled. By simply leaving such an important matter to chance, businesses are running the risk of finding themselves in hot water.”
Here Lindsey sets out some key considerations when drawing up a social media policy:
1) Set out who owns what when it comes to social media
Ensure the ownership of the company’s social media accounts belong to the business - rather than the employee responsible for updating and monitoring them - to avoid expensive legal battles at a later date.
2) Issue guidelines on what they can and can’t post
Make it clear that defamatory comments, discriminatory, racist or sexist language, the sharing of sensitive commercial information or information about colleagues, negative statements about the company and inappropriate jokes will result in, at best, disciplinary action, and at worst, a termination of employment. Bear in mind that private messages need to be included in these guidelines to ensure that confidential information isn’t shared on social media.
It is also important to ensure employees understand the law around intellectual property. For example, if an employee controlling the firm’s social media posts an image – be it a photograph or a picture – that was created by someone else, that constitutes a breach of copyright. However, it is not a breach of copyright to include in a post a hyperlink to that same image.
3) Identify those members of staff who will participate in social media on behalf of your company and assign roles
There may be one person who has already been identified as a good company advocate and is comfortable engaging with clients or customers through social media, or maybe you’re starting your search from scratch; whoever you chose to represent your company online, make sure the social media policy sets out which employees have permission to post, and what sort of content is considered acceptable.
Allocate roles to those involved in posting so that employees know who is responsible for the areas of strategy, response to any crises, customer engagement and password management.
4) Include security processes
In order to protect social media accounts from attacks, passwords and organisational software need to be updated regularly. The name of the person or people responsible for doing so – and for other aspects of social media security - should be shared in the policy to ensure the accounts are protected and that employees know who to contact if they have a problem.
5) Make it clear that the policy applies to employees whether they’re posting inside or out of the workplace
There is a tendency for people to think that what they post in their own time bears no relation to their employment, but that’s not necessarily the case. If any sort of a link can be made between the employee and your organisation, then a problematic post is still a problematic post – no matter what time of day it is posted.
6) Set out exactly what constitutes overuse of personal online activity in work
It’s vital to include an acceptable use policy outlining appropriate personal online activity during working hours, be it social media, email or internet, as you may need to rely on it should an employee’s performance suffer due to excessive time spent online.
Set out prohibited websites, the extent of online activity that will be tolerated during a working day, and remind them that their internet activity may be monitored now and again.
Explain why you have set up the policies you have, and it’s more likely that your workforce will be on board.
7) Don’t gag your employees
Any attempts to prevent employees from posting on social media could result in some serious freedom of speech issues, so don’t try and stop them from doing so. Instead, educate staff as to what they can do to support the business on social media and help drive more people to its website.
8) Educate your team about malware
All it takes is a click on a social media link for your network to come under attack, so educate employees on how to recognise suspicious messages and links in order to protect your system.
9) Ask for specialist input
Whether it’s your HR department or your legal adviser, it’s vital to ask other members of your team for specialist input to ensure all your bases are covered. A solicitor, for example, will be able to advise you on the wording needed in your policy to ensure no copyright rules are breached when sharing third-party content, while your HR team can advise on parts of the policy that could impact on employees’ contracts.
10) Make the policy easily accessible
It could be housed on your company intranet or in employee handbooks; wherever you choose to publish it, make sure the social media policy is easy for all employees to access.
11) Offer employees the opportunity to learn
Whether they’ve just dipped their toe in the water or are regular social media posters, employees should be offered the opportunity to learn more about how they can interact with people on behalf of your organisation, helping to raise their own profile and that of the business in the process.
"Social media policies should cover not only what employees post on their accounts, but also how the companys own account is handled. "
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