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Separating personal views from work when using social media

The boundaries of the modern workplace are breaking down more than ever. Year by year, advances in new technology seem to make them crumble further. The changing nature of the workplace presents opportunities as well as dangers for organisations and their employees. One of the most delicate problems is how to keep personal matters separate from work on social networking platforms. Employees have the right to express themselves freely, but what happens if their personal views are in direct opposition to their employer's? What if their comments threaten the reputation of an organisation?

Frightening though the prospect may be of a company's standing being tarnished with a single click of the mouse, it's important for employers not to overreact to posts that displease them. A balance has to be drawn between personal freedom of expression and the interests of the employer.

A recent case before the High Court dealt with exactly this issue. When an employer got wind of comments on an employee's Facebook page that a colleague perceived as homophobic, the employee was suspended, investigated, found guilty of gross misconduct and effectively dismissed. However, the judge found that the Facebook comments were not judgemental or disrespectful, and that no-one reading them would have assumed they represented anything but the opinions of the employee. The judge ruled that there had been no breach of contract and that the employer had no right to dismiss.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that employers should remember that individuals have a right to express themselves freely, especially if done in measured and moderate terms. Moreover, people reading blogs, tweets and posts are also usually able to discern the difference between private opinion and the views of an organisation.

There's a broader point to be made about the nature of modern workforces. As organisations strive for employee diversity, they have to expect that colleagues with markedly different religious or political views work alongside each other. Diversity thrives in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect.

Even so, organisations should set clear guidelines on what personal views can be expressed when employees are seen to be representing the company. Employees in these circumstances are sometimes forbidden from giving any political views. It's also helpful to spell out how employees might be expected to protect an organisation's brand and reputation. Some organisations opt for separate guidance on the use of blogs and social media sites and require employees to use a disclaimer stating that views expressed are theirs alone.

Acas provides detailed advice on using Social media platforms at work, and can help organisations develop their own policy for its acceptable use. Acas also holds a range of training courses and events on Discipline and grievance, including how to manage use of the internet and social network sites.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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