Business Owners: Why You Need a Social Media Policy

A social media policy can encourage employees to keep their personal social media from damaging your company image Social media is an amazing tool but the potential pitfalls are pretty spectacular too! A social media policy is good way for business owners to protect their company's online reputation. This article by new blogger Laura Scaife is is a great starting point for those unsure about their social media policy.

Social media has become an integral part of many businesses’ marketing strategies due to a greater understanding of the potential it offers.  While social media provides opportunities to manage existing relationships, as well as developing new client contacts through its marketing opportunities, the potential pitfalls are substantial. This article will look at the use of social media in the employment context, suggesting that businesses should establish a comprehensive and workable social media strategy for their employees and issues for employers to consider when setting their policies as well as issues that employees need to be alive to when using social media. 

Social Media

The advent of social media has facilitated the ability to initiate and maintain connections in ways which would have been impossible during the early days of networking.  It is possible, even common, to look at the profile of a contact to understand their expertise, connections and background in a few minutes rather than relying upon word of mouth recommendations. Some of its key benefits include:

  • Management of existing relationships
  • Ability to readily engage with your clients  
  • Develop new client contacts through its marketing opportunities
  • Initiate and maintain connections
  • Develop goodwill (and potentially revenue)
  • Information can be communicated instantaneously
  • It is available at little or no cost 

However, with social media uncertainty remains around who owns what and what is the most successful strategy to implement. 

Social media needs to be handled carefully. The Employment Tribunal case of Whitham v Club 24 Ltd t/a Ventura (2011) highlights the potential pitfalls which may be encountered by employees.

Ms Whitham posted comments on Facebook complaining about her colleagues and she was dismissed for putting the company’s reputation at risk.

However, the Tribunal found that Mrs Whitham’s comments were relatively mild, were not about a major client and did not involve any confidential information. No individuals were identified in her comments and her privacy settings meant that only her friends could see her Facebook page. Moreover, it was highly unlikely that such mild comments by a junior employee could jeopardise the commercial relationship between her company and their major client. However this case raised the important question to the employer of risk management when ensuring that client relationships are adequately protected. 

The case also highlighted the importance of keeping the professional and personal uses of social media separate. 

While to many people this may be a matter of common sense, in practical terms this may not always be possible e.g. a number of professionals will develop friends into clients. As such it is important, as discussed below, to remember that private, may not be completely private and therefore should avoid posting any content you would prefer your or your business not to be associated with. Personal use of social media should be regularly reviewed to ensure that the choice of platform and content is always suitable. 

Best practice 

To establish an effective social media policy, in addition to certain safeguards that must be implemented, the policy must meet the aims and strategy of the business and allow for development as the business’s requirements change.  The task of developing and delivering the policy should not be left up to those in charge of Human Resources and IT. Top Management should also take an active role in ensuring that they filter down the message that the Policy matters and is followed at all levels of the business. 

It is also important to bear in mind that the requirements and demands of your clients may change over time and result in an increased expectation of using social media as a viable, and practical, method of communication with the business.  It is for this reason that a “one size fits all” policy is unlikely to be as effective as one that is tailored to the specific needs (and opportunities) of the business in question.  Some areas should however always be covered, including:

Anti-harassment and bullying policies;

  • Confidentiality obligations;
  • Data protection policies;
  • Electronic information and communications systems policies;
  • Equal opportunities policies;
  • Ethics and standards of conduct policies or other policies dealing with misconduct;  
  • Intellectual property aspects (concerning ‘ownership’ of content and contacts);
  • Monitoring procedures; and
  • Reporting procedures and contacts for queries. 

Employees and Social Media

In terms of businesses considering how to manage their employees and their use of social media, a number of UK Court cases have considered when dismissal will be reasonable for social network-related misconduct and provide useful guidance for employers on how their policy will work in practice should a problem arise. It is important for employees to consider the issue of effective communication and well drafted policies as in Lerwill v Aston Villa Football Club Ltd (unreported ET/1304758/10) an employer was found not to have informed the employee sufficiently of what the implications would be of failure to comply with the social media policy and the dismissal of the employee was therefore found to be unfair. Moreover in Grant & Ross v Mitate Property Services Limited (unreported) employers were reminded of the need to set out clearly the parameters of the policy to avoid confusion. In Grant two sisters won their claim for unfair dismissal for excessive internet usage as the employer’s policy (which permitted access outside “core working times”), was too vague.  A policy therefore is only as good as its drafting and its consistent implementation. 

However in Preece v JD Wetherspoons Plc ET2104806/10 the employer was found to have acted reasonably in dismissing a manager for posting derogatory comments about a customer on Facebook during her shift.

She thought only a handful of people would see them but in fact hundreds did, including the daughter of the abusive customer.

Wetherspoons relied on its clear social networking policy which prohibited disparaging customers on Facebook, the availability of an employee hotline and that the remarks took place during an ongoing conversation rather than in the heat of the moment. Significantly the Tribunal held that even if the comments were made in the employee’s own time Wetherspoons may still have been able to act in the same way. 

Taking the above into account, as part of a businesses delivered training programme, it is prudent encourage employees to:

  1. Familiarise themselves with the business’s social media policy;
  2. Regularly review the content of their personal social media channels;
  3. Ensure all privacy settings are up to date;
  4. Understand where the line between professional ends and private begins;
  5. Logout of social media platforms when not at the computer; and
  6. Think before uploading content as they may not be able to control who reads it.

In addition to establishing a policy, businesses should train staff on areas such as privacy settings, potential legal consequences of breaching the policy, template formats to be used etc. A good demonstration of why this is important comes from the case of Stephens v Halfords Plc ET/1700796/10, where an employee who was being consulted over a workplace reorganisation put up a Facebook page entitled “Halfords workers against working 3 out of 4 weekends”. When he read the company’s social networking policy two days later and realised his page might be in breach of the policy, he immediately took it down.

His dismissal was held to be unfair as he had a clean disciplinary record, had removed the page as soon as he realised it was in breach of the company’s policy and he had apologised. 

Monitoring the Policy

Once the policy has been implemented and any teething troubles worked out the business must ensure that the policy is adequately monitored and compliant with legislation such as the Data Protection Act 1998. When formulating the policy employers should be minded that monitoring should be proportionate and involve employees in the process where possible. Prior to the implementation the business’s management, in conjunction with IT, HR and marketing, should undertake an “impact assessment” to ensure that all legislative requirements are adhered to.  The assessment should be regularly repeated to take account of changes in technology and the law.

Conclusion

Social media is now established as part of everyday life both professionally and personally.  It is therefore prudent for businesses to establish clear policies and strategy for its implementation.  While many may see its implementation as a threat, particularly in light of unwitting damage occurring to a businesses reputation or client relationships, its opportunities far outweigh these threats. 

Businesses should see social media as an opportunity to embrace the potential of new technology to develop themselves in terms of communication with their clients.  By setting out, monitoring and enforcing a well-designed and drafted social media policy the business can ensure that they are complying with all necessary regulations and expected standards of conduct. 

It is crucial to involve the employees at all stages of such a policy from its creation through to its enforcement.  Many potential areas of concern can be eliminated through training and education e.g. danger of blurring the lines between professional and personal.  Each employee should recognise their own importance in ensuring that both they and the business are complying with their obligations and where necessary seek additional training.  

The social media guidance is helpful and provides businesses with a useful map from which they can begin to establish a strategy and policy to achieve their medium term goals. To many social media is becoming a central part of their business (or marketing),  and it will take time and effort for it to be fully integrated as part of day to day business, as was the case with email.  Each business has its own personality and culture and these should be incorporated into a social media policy as the aim of such a policy is not to curtail the freedoms of the business but to enable it to flourish.  

People buy People. Would the client want to buy you and the services you provide? 

Summary 

  • Establish a clear Social Media policy
  • Involve employees in its creation
  • Have an Implementation Strategy
  • Effectively deliver the policy at a business wide level
  • Undertake regular “impact assessments”
  • Remember that compliance is a “two way street” between employer and employee

Laura Scaife is a trainee solicitor at Hill Dickinson, you can follower her on Twitter @RegardingLaw to tweet you social media queries as well as regularly receive hints and tips for your business.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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