Articles | Facebook in the workplace

With a reported 3.5 million UK registered "Facebookers", employers are facing a blurring of the lines between their employees' business and private/social lives.

Contact

Address
1 London Street,
Reading,
RG1 4PN

Telephone
+44 (0)118 951 6200

Email
enquiry@fsp-law.com

Ian Machray

Ian Machray

The new addiction

Online social networking has become a new phenomenon for millions around the globe. With a reported 3.5 million UK registered "Facebookers", employers are facing a blurring of the lines between their employees' business and private/social lives.

Friend or foe?

Opinion is divided as to whether social networking sites are a business benefit or a hindrance. Some employers fear time-wasting by employees, reduced productivity levels, a threat to IT security and potential breaches of confidentiality and privacy. Others  welcome these tools as a means of solving business problems, networking with professionals, a marketing or recruitment aid and good for employees’ and business morale.

Facing up to Facebook

Due to the mainstream nature of general internet access and email at work, employers are strongly encouraged to have a policy on email and internet usage in the workplace to deal with the potential problems posed by social networking sites and other issues.  A policy should deal with permitted usage (e.g widespread usage, reasonable usage, restrictive usage (perhaps during lunch time or outside working hours only) or an outright ban)), misuse of the email or internet systems, cyber-harassment and the disciplinary consequences of any breach of the policy.

If an employer monitors its employees’ email and internet access, the impact of data protection laws must be considered. The employer’s policy should alert employees to the fact that monitoring is carried out and identify the purposes for which this is undertaken.  The policy should also cover the possible interception of personal communications as well as legitimate business communications.

Social networking, in particular, and its implications should be addressed in an employer’s policy.  Given the open nature of the Facebook forum and the electronic footprint left behind with online postings; employees should be warned of the risk of causing inadvertent breaches of confidentiality, damaging their employer’s reputation, the possible publication of defamatory or damaging material concerning co-workers or clients through irresponsible use of such sites.

Private Life vs Employer’s reputation

A well drafted policy will enable employers to take disciplinary action against employees who access or post material during working hours that is in breach of the employer’s rules on permitted usage.  However, how far can an employer go to police an employee’s use of social networking sites outside their working time? In a recent report, the promotion of a Bedford police Inspector to Chief Inspector was blocked following a disciplinary warning for posing as a police officer in a posted photograph and posting details of his gay lifestyle.

Employees will argue that employers should not be concerned with what they do in their private life and what material they put on their Facebook profile, but employers may consider that employees' duties as part of the employment relationship do not end when they finish work for the day.  The answer probably lies in the employee's seniority in the workplace; the more senior an employee, the more likely they will be expected to conduct their private lives in a way that does not impact on the employer’s reputation.

Whatever your views, social networking is here to stay – tackling it sooner, and in cooperation with employees by having a clear, comprehensive and well publicised policy, is the best way of avoiding the pitfalls.