Social media gaffes in the workplace

Sometimes a flippant remark or blunder can have far-reaching consequences as well as cause embarrassment and offence.  There has been widespread media speculation over the recent case of Danny Baker, a BBC broadcaster, who was fired for a ‘chimp’ tweet about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby. He had posted an image on Twitter that some people have interpreted as being racist.  This case has highlighted how tricky it is to navigate the boundaries of what may be considered discrimination versus free speech; as well as a given warning versus dismissal.  In this article, we will focus on prevention being better than the cure and give some HR guidelines on how to help protect your business from such an occurrence.

Social media and the workplace

The use of social networking by employees throws up a whole range of problems. These can include virtual bullying or harassment; time wasting caused by excessive browsing; disclosure of confidential information; discriminatory comments about other employees; the publication of defamatory material; and damage to the reputation of the business. The most common kinds of problem occur when employees blur the boundary between personal and work behaviour.

Prevention is better than cure and the key to preventing and managing the above issues is to have the right policies and rules in place that will prevent unwanted disclosures. If you have a tightly worded employment contract, backed up by robust policies on bullying and harassment, IT, data protection and discipline, and perhaps a Code of Conduct, your employees will know how to behave, will realise that their duty of confidentiality and professional conduct can extend to cover social media and what you will do if they breach your rules. If there is a grey area, managers may not resolve the issue in a consistent way and failure to enforce policies consistently can make a bad situation worse.

So decide on your stance and communicate this. Key HR policies can help as follows:

  • Bullying and harassment
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • IT policies
  • Data protection
  • Disciplinary procedures
  • A Code of Conduct
  • Sections in your employee handbook on social media, dignity at work.

Monitoring of social media accounts

Under the Data Protection Act, any monitoring should have a clear purpose, only go as far as is necessary to protect the business, and should be clearly communicated to employees so that they are aware of what is monitored, why and for how long.

Employees should be made aware, via clearly written policies or a handbook, what personal use is allowed of emails, messaging and the internet, any limitation on this, and the implications of any breach of the rules (eg disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal). They should be warned if their internet usage is being monitored regularly.

As excessive snooping could result in constructive dismissal or unlawful discrimination claims, ensure that you adhere to the rules you have laid out in your IT and data protection policy. You may have specified that random checks of internet sites accessed will take place, and/or that all emails will be checked whilst the employee is absent from work. Any monitoring (other than during a formal disciplinary investigation or in criminal proceedings) MUST be generally well known, so make sure that your employees know that you will monitor their messages. Often a statement that you will do this is sufficient to put a stop to too much personal usage!


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