20th November 2012


 Issue No.  2012/18




While you are reading this Information Update there is a good chance that someone in your organisation is posting a message on Facebook, posting a blog, sending out a Twitter tweet, or trying to contact people through LinkedIn. You may think that these internet-based social networking tools are innocuous, but they can pose serious legal risks if left untamed and without iron-clad rules.

Hardly a week goes by without hearing of a prosecution of someone harassing, bullying or being offensive on one of the social media tools. In 2011 there were 2,490 complaints regarding social media, a figure which is set to rise in 2012. While most of these cases take place outside work, many employers in recent times have been exposed to harassment cases, cyber-bullying and privacy violation claims that crop up because employees are connecting with each other on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.

According to a recent survey conducted by Consultants Deloitte, 22% of employees say that they use some form of social networking five or more times per week, and 15% of employees admit they access social networking while at work for personal reasons. Yet, only 22% of companies have a formal policy that guides employees in their use of social networking at work.

Whether they’re shooting off their own tweets or following others, employees using Twitter—the fastest growing social media site—are creating liability and PR risks with their 140-character rants, raves and company gossip.

What can the employer do?

The toughest stance to take is simply to have a policy that prevents use of all social media while at work, full stop! Blocking use of these channels with a firewall or other such device would achieve this. However, this is all well and good, but the commercial use of such media for genuine PR, advertising, marketing etc is also growing fast so a blanket ban would seem inappropriate. And then what happens when employees go home and there are no such constraints.

Problems employers should watch out for.

Consider the following:

  • What would you do if a manager asks his/her subordinates to accept him as a “friend” on Facebook?  What if they decline?
  • What should you do if an employee believes he is being bullied by another employee through such media and to what extent should you become involved?
  • What should you do if you find out an employee is broadcasting malicious gossip about the Company?
  • What should you do if you find employees publishing comments via social media that could be deemed as proprietary or confidential Company Information?
  • How would you reprimand wayward employees without falling foul of any Human Rights or Privacy Legislation?

Clear policies and or rules need to be defined to handle each of these situations. Simply drafting rules is not the whole answer, you must educate employees about the risks of using social media and at the least provide guidelines for their conduct.

What should be included in a Social Networking Policy?

It would be nice if you could keep this really simple by saying “use your common sense, be mature, be ethical, and think before you type”.  Unfortunately life is not so straightforward and such a policy leaves employers wide open for potential conflict.

Some points to think about.

There are two main concerns for employers with regard to social networking.  How much unproductive time are employees spending and how is the employer being portrayed by employees either at work or in their own time.

There is a school of thought that says social networking should not be allowed in the workplace at all.  There are many products available that will prevent employees accessing certain sites on the internet via your network. However with the proliferation of smart phones, it is not realistic to ban all social networking at work.  And would you really want to? For sure you would lose the benefit of business-related networking. Clearly there is a massive potential marketing advantage if employees are posting tweets or comments on their Facebook page saying good things about the Company.

Enforcing a blanket ban would be difficult and resources would be consumed monitoring it. The ideal position would seem to be to allow social networking for business use only but not personal use.

Be proportionate in considering which is acceptable to you. For example an employee dashing off a quick personal message is not so different than two employees spending 10 minutes of work time discussing last nights football match.

Key policy rules to consider.

Make employees aware that:

  • if they post messages as an employee relating to your organisation, they will be held responsible for any negative portrayals
  • whatever is posted online has no privacy rights and can be used in a disciplinary matter, whether it was written in work time or not.
  • abuse of company time for personal needs is not allowed and will result in disciplinary action.

Existing rules relating to harassment and confidentiality apply equally to social media as well as any other form of interaction. Consequently a Social Networking Policy should not really be a standalone document but form part of your overall Employee Handbook content and rules, since online postings may well violate a number of existing Company policies.





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The advice and comment in this update is not meant to be an authoritative statement of law. The articles and summaries should not be applied to any specific set of facts and circumstances without seeking further advice. Whilst every care is taken to ensure that the content is correct Sentient cannot accept responsibility for the accuracy of statements made nor the result of any actions taken by individuals after reading such.

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