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Social media in the workplace

Advice on the use of social media and social networking in the workplace. Here we explore the issues, rules and guidelines for employers and employees, including cyber bullying, disciplinary procedures and implementing a social media policy.



Social media is the term used for internet-based tools used on computer, tablets, and smart phones to help people keep in touch and enable them to interact. It allows people to share information, ideas and views.

Social media can affect communications among managers, employees and job applicants; how organisations promote and control their reputation; and how colleagues treat one another. It can also distort what boundaries there are between home and work.

Some estimates report that misuse of the internet and social media by workers costs Britain's economy billions of pounds every year and add that many employers are already grappling with issues like time theft, defamation, cyber bullying, freedom of speech and the invasion of privacy.

Legal considerations

The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 8 gives a 'right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence'. Case law suggests that employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace.

The Data Protection Act 1988 covers how information about employees and job applicants can be collected, handled and used. The Information Commissioner's Office has published an employment practices code - Information Commissioner's Office: Quick guide to the employment practices code [PDF, 168kb] - to help employers comply with the law.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 covers the extent to which organisations can use covert surveillance.

Developing a policy

Employers should develop a policy setting out what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at work when using the internet, emails, smart phones, and networking websites. The policy should also give clear guidelines for employees on what they can and cannot say about the organisation. Any policy should be clear throughout about the distinction between business and private use of social media. If it allows limited private use in the workplace, it should be clear what this means in practice.

In working out a policy for use of social media, the employer, staff and unions or staff reps (if there are any) should agree the details. The policy should aim to ensure: employees do not feel gagged; staff and managers feel protected against online bullying; and the organisation feels confident its reputation will be guarded. 

Disciplinary procedures

An employer should try to apply the same standards of conduct in online matters as it would in offline issues.

To help an organisation respond reasonably, the employer should consider the nature of the comments made and their likely impact on the organisation. It would help if the employer gives examples of what might be classed as 'defamation' and the penalties it would impose. The employer should also be clear in outlining what is regarded as confidential in the organisation.

Blogging and tweeting

If an employee is representing the company online, set appropriate rules for what information they may disclose and the range of opinions they may express. Bring to their attention relevant legislation on copyright and public interest disclosure.

Some rules should be included on the use of social media in recruitment, which managers and employees should follow. When recruiting, employers should be careful if assessing applicants by looking at their social networking pages - this can be discriminatory and unfair. 

Update other policies

For example, an organisation's policy on bullying should include references to 'cyber bullying'. 

Employers should inform and consult with their employees if planning to monitor social media activity affecting the workplace. 

Action for employees

Employees should regularly check the privacy settings on their social networking sites, they should consider whether they want or need co-workers to see their profiles.

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