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What threats do internet trolls pose for employers?

The internet phenomenon of 'trolling' - making provocative or offensive online comments to get an angry reaction - has come to mainstream attention in recent weeks. Trolls usually hide behind anonymous accounts, but when they are unmasked there can be serious repercussions for the reputation of the company and the welfare of employees. In one high-profile case, colleagues of an outed troll received death threats and the company was engulfed in a media storm. How should employers reduce the risk of this happening?

It can be no bad thing to have an effective social media policy in place. This should lay down in simple language what is considered acceptable, and what may lead to disciplinary action. It may also have provisions to protect an organisation against liability for the actions of its workers - and help employees draw a clear line between what they do in their private and professional lives.

While offensive comments against colleagues can be dealt with in a straightforward manner under an organisation's disciplinary procedures, it may be harder to deal with instances in which trolling has happened in private time on a private device. Even so, it could be stated in company policy that there will be clear repercussions if employees bring a company into disrepute, regardless of where or when it is done.

Commentators have drawn parallels between trolls being outed today and football hooligans being named in the press in decades past, which sometimes led to their dismissal at work for bringing the reputation of their organisation into disrepute.

An Acas research paper pdf icon Workplaces and Social Networking: The Implications for Employment Relations [386kb] advises employers to take a 'common sense stance' and draw on 'norms that might apply in non-virtual settings' - by treating online behaviour in the same way as behaviour off-line.

A social media policy can only be effective if it is well communicated and understood by all staff. Induction programmes and training around social technology issues could help to keep everybody on board, and reduce the risk of employees overstepping the mark.

Acas has advice for your organisation on Social media and how to develop a policy, and how to deal with Cyber bullying too. Acas can visit you at your workplace, talk through the issues and find practical solutions, helping you to develop policies and procedures related to social networking. Training courses on related areas are also available, listed under Staff surveillance.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects page for more information.

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