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Social media, discipline and grievances

There can be confusion over what is acceptable behaviour in the use of social media.
Some employees can see it as a platform for free speech and believe they should be able to say what they want. This can prompt an angry employer to over-react.

The best approach is for an employer to make it clear to employees what conduct online is acceptable, and what is not, and deal with any transgressions through the same procedures it would deal with any other kind of disciplinary or grievance matters.

Key points

  • Posting grievances: Employees sometimes use social networking sites, emails or other forms of social media to air their grievances. For example, an employee may complain about how they are being treated by their line manager at work. 
  • Outside of work: Drawing a line between work and home life can be difficult for employers. For example, is an employee using a blog to express personal views or are they acting as a representative of the company? 
  • How do you apply company disciplinary rules to social media activity? For example, what online behaviour constitutes gross misconduct? Many employers have clear rules on defamation and breaches of confidentiality, but are often less sure about whether they should be making judgements about an employee's behaviour online (see our guide on Social media, defamation, data protection and privacy). 
  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions: The speed and permanence of many social media interactions can lead some employers to wrongly abandon how they would normally handle a disciplinary issue. Instead, in the heat of the moment, they may make the mistake of responding suddenly to one involving social media. An employer should stick with its proper disciplinary procedures. 
  • Managing messages: While many employees see social media as a channel for free speech, most employers feel the need to supervise what is said about the organisation. However, if an employer is overly proscriptive about the use of social media channels, it can be viewed as trying to gag employees from expressing personal views. 
  • One-to-ones: Social networking can be an excuse for avoiding face-to-face conversations. Many of the issues that lead to disciplinary and grievance problems at work can often be dealt with by a manager having a quiet word with an employee - which can prove hard if line managers have become over-reliant on communicating electronically.

The way forward

  • Consult your staff: In working out a policy for use of social media, employer, staff and unions should agree the details. The aims should be so employees do not feel gagged, staff and managers feel protected against online bullying, and the organisation feels confident its reputation will be guarded. 
  • Communicating the guidelines: Employers should make it clear when employees will be seen as representing the company and what personal views they can express - for example, some employees are forbidden from expressing any political views. Also, an employer should be clear about what it means by defamation and how it expects employees to help protect the company or organisational brand (see the guide on Social media, defamation, data protection and privacy). 
  • Explain the don'ts: An employer should include social networking in its discipline and grievance policy, giving clear examples of what will be regarded as gross misconduct - for example, posting derogatory or offensive comments on the internet about the company or a work colleague.

    Further, Acas research suggests employers should take into consideration the possible consequences of an employee's actions in determining what it might or might not do. For example, is an employee merely letting off steam to friends or do their comments actually harm the organisation's reputation? 
  • Update bullying policies: An employer should include guidance on the use of social media in its policy for dealing with bullying. For example, there have been instances of employees being 'sent to Coventry' because they did not accept an invitation to become a colleague's friend on a social networking site. 
  • Don't forget direct forms of communication: Many of the causes of conflict at work can be resolved by face-to-face interaction. An employer improving managers' skills to resolve conflict, for example, through mediation, can also help to nip problems in the bud. Acas offers training in how to handle difficult conversations and mediation.

Acas Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Wakeling talks about social media in the workplace.