Businesses warned over hidden risks of social media

Business owners are being urged to protect themselves from the potential misuse of social media by employees as the number of employment tribunals relating to social networking are on the increase.

In the past year social media has exploded into mainstream use, becoming a common feature of many workplaces and offices with the line between personal and business use often blurred. According to the latest figures, the number of Twitter users increased by 1,382 percent in this period and rival Facebook has passed over 500 million users worldwide.

Despite this, recent research has revealed that less than 11 percent of businesses in the UK have a formal social media policy governing the use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

According to Peter Castle from insurance brokers Bluefin Insurance Services, many businesses are failing to control the use of social media in the workplace leaving themselves open to reputational harm and the costs arising from employment tribunals when employees are dismissed for alleged misuse.

“As social media has become increasingly popular, there has also been a sharp rise in cases of employee misuse of this technology,” he said. “In particular, many businesses and employees are not clear about the rules governing when and where employees can use social media which can lead to a number of problems.

“There have been several recent cases where employees have successfully argued that any attempt to restrict their activities outside of the workplace breaches their right to a private life as conferred by European human rights legislation. Many businesses without a social media policy could fall foul of this legislation leading to financial and reputational damage.”

In the UK, Facebook has 24 million active users and visits to the site account for 7.5 percent of all time spent on the internet. According to the latest figures, 60 percent of adults in the UK access the internet every day and 43 per cent of internet users now access social networking sites.

The risks of social media are highlighted by a number of recent employment tribunal cases. In one example, an employee was dismissed for filming a fight in a company warehouse and posting the incident on YouTube. However because the video was only viewed eight times and there was no loss to the company as a result of the incident, the dismissal was found to be unfair.

In a second case, an employee was sacked for breaching company policy after posting comments about customers on Facebook. Although the employee’s actions took place away from work, the tribunal found that the employee’s actions were likely to bring about reputational harm to the business and were to be considered in the public domain leading to the unfair dismissal claim being unsuccessful. Nonetheless employment tribunals cost businesses in terms of representation costs and management time.

To help businesses protect themselves from the misuse of this technology, Bluefin offers the following advice:

•Make sure you have a formal written social media policy in place
•Stipulate clearly the sanctions for a breach of the policy
•Companies should clearly define what actions would constitute misconduct
•Do not rely on computer use/misuse policies as these are usually only concerned with misuse of company equipment
•Ensure your policies are clear and consistent and do not contradict one another
•Ensure that employees are aware of all policies and are regularly reminded of them
•Review your policies regularly to ensure they remain up to date as technology develops
•Be clear that your policies apply to all employees and cover their behaviour in the office and at home insofar as social networking is used in relation to the business.