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How to balance the benefits and risks of social media

Businesses recognise that social media creates opportunities to positively enhance reputation and brand, but it’s not without risks. Research suggests that around 30% of employees have posted a work status update and 50% have befriended a colleague; the workplace and social media have truly collided.

Professional use of social media, whether this is the company’s own website, intranet or third party platforms, can be an asset to a business and can be a real opportunity to share employee insight with customers and clients. But engagement doesn’t come without challenges and it can present employers with new problems as well as magnify existing ones.

The very immediate and wide audience that social media reaches means that employee posts, blogs or  opinion can be easily linked to their employer, exposing them to potentially serious legal liabilities, such as:

  • Discrimination – including protected characteristics such as religious and political beliefs
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Disclosure of confidential information and security breaches
  • Damage to reputation and brand
  • A loss of productivity because of time spent by employees on social media sites while at work

The rise of smart phones and handheld devices for instant communication combined with pressurised working environments, also presents new challenges for employers. Social media networks often evolve more quickly than business practices and employers consequently find themselves outpaced by technology and unsure how to reduce risk exposure.

Creating and maintaining a social media policy

Employers must navigate the balancing act between maintaining control of employee behaviour whilst at the same time recognising privacy rights and the positive use of social media. To help mitigate risks, it’s vital in today’s workplace to have a social media policy. Even if a company has no social media presence, employees may be creating one by their actions online.

By having a social media policy and procedures in place, it should set out clear standards of conduct and performance; give examples of appropriate and inappropriate use; and marry up with existing policies. Also by regularly reviewing and revising the social media policy, businesses can also keep their internal regulations up to speed with the constant technological advances. 

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all approach’. Different employers will have different priorities and risk factors. The important points are make sure that the policy is as clear as possible; that it is easy to find and accessible to all; and lastly educate your employees on the social media policy with training sessions, which should help curb mishaps.

How to minimise risks

The extent to which employers can monitor the social media activities of employees, prospective employees and ex-employees is regulated by law. Monitoring employees’ use of social media is without doubt a tricky area. Communication is key and management needs to be transparent and open with staff, explaining the level of monitoring whilst at work. 

These days many employers take an active regulated approach to social media and recognise that blocking access at work can be a missed opportunity. Furthermore, many generation Y employees consider access to social media to be a right and may perceive that employers who block social media access at work do not trust staff to behave appropriately. Each employer needs to carefully consider the different implications that each social media network presents and manage the risks accordingly.

There is a particular difficulty in today’s workplace to draw a difference between work related and private information. Employers need to make a distinction between an employees’ private life, which cannot be controlled by the employer and their work activities, which it can control. It’s essential that this is communicated, being absolutely clear on the differentiation between what constitutes personal and professional use. Above all, employers need to ensure that if employees are posting personal comments, then they are clear that these comments are personal opinions and not representative of the business.

Also so not to be in breach of employee data protection rights, employers need to be careful not to trawl through employee or prospective employee social media posts to try and find information when such search could be found to be disproportionate. If an employer relies upon social media posts to make recruitment decisions without enabling an applicant to comment on such material then there is also the potential for discrimination complaints.  An applicant may say, for example, that they have been unfairly treated because of their political or religious beliefs and may be able to advance an Equality Act complaint even before they have been recruited.

First published in The Herald's daily 'Agenda' column on 2 June 2015.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at June 2015. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases; we cannot be held responsible for any action (or decision not to take action) made in reliance upon the content of this publication.

TLT LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England & Wales number OC 308658 whose registered office is at One Redcliff Street, Bristol BS1 6TP England. A list of members (all of whom are solicitors or lawyers) can be inspected by visiting the People section of this website. TLT LLP is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 406297.

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