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Social media, defamation, data protection and privacy

Social media can be a valuable tool for organisations, but carries with it responsibilities. They include determining who in the organisation can publicly say what, use information and access it. Also, employers have to give good reason for tracking employees' use of social media.

Key points

  • Defamation: Employees posting damaging or libellous comments about a company or its products or publishing sensitive commercial data.

    Also, employers divulging protected personal data - for example, giving away details of salary, political or religious beliefs or disciplinary records.
  • Managing the organisation's reputation: Employers may be keen for employees to promote the organisation's brand on social media, but not at the cost of making unwelcome posts.
  • Reacting to negative comments: An employer's response to comments about the company on social networking sites should be proportionate to the perceived issue.

    See Avoid knee-jerk reactions in the Social media, discipline and grievances guide.
  • Monitoring employees' use of social media: An employer must determine correctly whether its reasons for supervising staff use are justified under the data protection laws.
  • Information about employees: Employers should be aware that an employee has the right to access details kept about them - such as sickness and disciplinary records, appraisal reviews and general personnel files.

The way forward

  • Take a stance on social media: This comes down to an employer deciding whether or not it will use social media and, if so, how. Before coming to a decision, it should consult with staff first.

    Employers should bear in mind that the use of social media is now a part of many organisations, including for recruiting staff and marketing.

    Some employers see employees as valuable outlets for promoting their brand through social networking, including those who restrict its use to selected and trained employees. Other employers feel the risk of damage to the company name is too great and ban the use of social networking sites at work.
  • Develop rules for staff use of social media: An employer embracing social media should make it clear that employees may face disciplinary action if they post any comments that might damage the company's reputation.

    An employer could also require employees to use a disclaimer on any blogs, comments on social networking sites or tweets. For example, an employee might state that the views expressed are those of the employee and do not represent the employer's view.
  • Inform employees if planning to monitor social media activity: An employer should consult with employee representatives or a recognised trade union. An employer needs to justify the use of monitoring, showing that the benefits outweigh any possible adverse impact.

    Significant intrusion into private lives will not normally be justified unless there is a real risk of serious damage to the business. The Information Commissioner issues guidance on data protection and monitoring. To find out more, go to the Information Commissioner's Office.

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