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Social Networking: A Minefield for Employers!

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Social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Instagram have become major and influential social communication tools.

According to a recent social media and employment survey carried out by William Fry Solicitors, 81% of Irish employees’ access social media sites while at work – with the average worker spending approximately 56 minutes per day on such sites.  These statistics are quite alarming, particularly when considered against a backdrop of recession!

Apart from the inevitable reduction in productivity, there are many other issues to be considered by Irish employers.  For instance, there has been an increase in the use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to air personal grievances or to complain about perceived poor treatment while at work.  Cyber bullying is also on the increase with employers potentially facing claims in the civil courts for damages arising from a psychological or psychiatric illness suffered by an employee as a result of cyber-bullying.

It appears that many employees have the misconception that social media communication is personal, and therefore unconnected to the workplace.  While employees may well see nothing wrong in expressing personal opinions online about their workplace or about their work colleagues, it can pose a serious problem for an employer if their reputation is being damaged or if they later become vicariously liable for the comments made by their employees.

The Employment Appeals Tribunal recently found (UD 865/2011) that a former Marks and Spencer employee, Ms Toland, was unfairly dismissed and she was awarded €18,000.  She had participated in three conversations with a work colleague on a social networking site concerning a store manager. While the Tribunal found the dismissal to be unfair they took into account the fact that Ms Toland contributed to her own dismissal by participating in social media conversations about a manager.  Accordingly, the award to Ms Toland was reduced, although she argued that she had never heard or had sight of the company’s social networking policy until disciplinary proceedings had begun.

With an increase in the number of privately owned smartphones, tablets and laptops, employers would be wise to develop an appropriate social media policy as a preventative measure.  However, a good social media policy isn’t just about rules.  It should also contain guidelines to educate employees about how to use social media responsibly.

This situation can be a potential minefield for an employer.  While we all hope that our employees’ use best judgment with social media and exercise personal responsibility when posting online, this is not always the case.  If you suspect an employee is misusing or abusing social media while at work, professional advice is very useful and can save you money in the long-run. No sensible employer should leave their business exposed to unnecessary compensation claims and costly legal fees.

Our experienced HR Consultants understand the legal complexities involved in handling issues around the abuse of social media.  To find out more about developing a social media policy for your company, or to talk to one of our consultants in confidence about cyber-bullying, call Mary Cullen, Patrick Foley or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie

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