Social Media Control

The explosion of social media has introduced a whole new challenge to the working environment and for HR policy makers. The first question for organisations is do you allow staff free access or do you limit it? For HR professionals the next question is if there is unfettered access do you have a formal social media policy, covering elements such as not referring to your employer and making derogatory statements etc.

In seeking a path to enlightenment on these questions a good starting point is what is happening in the employment tribunals, there are some cases of note that have been through the tribunal system;

Whitham v Club 24 t/a Ventura

Mrs Whitham was a team leader for Ventura’s Volkswagen/Skoda account posted comments on her Facebook account stating, “she work in a nursery and I do not mean working with plants. When she received a comment that she worked “with a lot of planks” she replied “2 true xx”.

Two of Mrs Whitam’s friends were colleagues and reported her comments to her manager. Ventura’s policy warned staff of the risk of posting information about their work on the Internet and suspended Mrs Whitham.

Although Mrs Whitham apologised for her actions Ventura dismissed her citing that her comments could have potentially Ventura’s reputation and jeopardise their relationship with Volkswagen/Skoda.  Mrs Whitham’s appeal against this decision was unsuccessful.

The Tribunal held that Mrs Whitham had been unfair dismissed stating that dismissal was not a reasonable response to her actions. It also stated that given Mrs Whitham at no point mentioned her employer in her comments there was no validity to Ventura’s view that their relationship with Volkswagen/Skoda would be jeopardised.

Taylor v Somerfield

Mr Taylor posted footage of colleagues fighting with plastic bags on YouTube. He was dismissed on grounds that it brought the company in disrepute. The tribunal disagreed and found the dismissal to be unfair. The tribunal stated that unless the colours of the staff uniform could be recognised there was no obvious connection between the footage and Somerfield.

Preece V JD Wetherspoon

Having received derogatory comments form some customers Miss Preece, while on duty, posted derogatory comments about the customers on her Facebook page. She believed they would only be seen by 50 of the 600 Facebook friends she has. The comments were seen by one of the customers who complained to Wetherspoons.

Wetherspoons policy warned staff about posting comments which could lower its reputation or the reputation of colleagues or customers and failure to comply with this would be treated as an issue of gross misconduct. Miss Preece was dismissed.

The Tribunal stated it would have issued a final written warning in this case, but it could not substitute its own view and thus held that the decision to dismiss did fall within the range of reasonable courses of action open to Wetherspoon.

So what does the experience in these cases tell us, that;

Companies with clear social media policies in place are in a far stronger position in respect of claims at tribunal.

If a company is alleging that an employee’s use of social media risks damaging its reputation it will need to clearly demonstrate that there is evidence of damage or possible damage.

In conclusion it all looks very straightforward, if your organisation is going to allow staff to engage in social media in the workplace have a clear policy.

Well that’s not a view shared by Neil Morrison, Group HR Director of Random House, he states in this months People Management Magazine HR often fell into the trap of relying on “dumb” policies influenced by legal advisers and social media was one area where things should be done differently. He thinks that its an area of trust and that by having a policy you are just telling your staff you don’t trust them.

Mathew Davies, UK HR Director of Logica who stated that employers had to learn not to control everything, also supported Neil’s view; employees where already sharing their view of their employers on Internet forums and this would increasingly influence jobseekers decisions.

Increasingly numbers of employers are taking the zero risk approach by blocking access to social network sites from workplace computers, this seems to be closing the stable door when the horse has bolted, with the plethora of mobile devices, this will have a limited impact.

It is my belief that a sensible approach to the issue of social media needs to be taken. There should be some guidelines, which will give the employer comfort, but by adopting a trusting and reasonable approach employers can benefit from the impact of social media.