There was controversy last month when 17 year old Paris Brown, who was due to take up the role of Britain’s first youth crime commissioner, made a number of comments on Twitter which lead to her being interviewed by police.

Social media offers many benefits to both our professional and personal lives, particularly the ability to communicate to a wide audience.  Despite the advantages, it can also cause difficulties to employers.

Employers should be aware of the following when employees are using social media in the work place:

1.    Train your staff – This may be effective in preventing social media misuse in the work place.
2.    Implement a workplace policy – Employees should be aware that they will be at risk of disciplinary action in the event that they breach of the policy.  The policy should clearly set out what behaviour is unacceptable both inside and outside work including anything negative about the employer, other employees, products, customers and suppliers.
3.    Treat your staff consistently – Be consistent when taking steps to discipline employees. Inconsistent treatment may result in exposing you to potential employment tribunal claims and lead to lose of morale amongst the workforce.
4.    You could be vicariously liable – Employees can be vicariously liable for employee’s acts unless then can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent an employee from carrying out the act as set out in the Equality Act 2010.  Reasonable steps may include implementing relevant policies covering social media which will need to include anti-bullying and harassment by social media and training staff.
5.    Confidential information – Employees should also warn employees of the use of divulging confidential information or intellectual property rights when tweeting or blogging at work.
6.    Social media and recruitment – Employers who screen candidates via social networking sites could face discrimination claims.  Ensure that you act in accordance with your equal opportunities obligations and the Data Protection Act 1998.
7.    Don’t jump to conclusions, investigate thoroughly before making any decision – In the case of Smith v Trafford Housing Trust, Mr Smith was demoted after posted comments about ‘gay marriage’ on his Facebook account.  The main charge was that he had acted ‘seriously prejudicial to the reputation’ of his employer.  The High Court disagreed and ruled that the postings were not ‘judgemental, disrespectful or liable to cause upset or offence’.  It considered that Mr Smith had confined his comments to his circle of friends and was entitled to express his views in that forum.
8.    Protecting your business – LinkedIn is an effective tool to network and create new business but who owns the business contacts on an employee’s profile?  This is not straightforward when contact lists are saved on an external site.  Employers might want to consider specifying to employees that any professional lists created during their employment belong to the employer as one way to protect your legitimate business interests. This could be included in a contract of employment.

By following the above guidelines, employers should be able to use social media to their advantage and not their detriment. If you require  advice on implementing a social media policy for the workplace, or have any specific issues relating to misuse of social media, or indeed any other employment law matter, please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

By Sally Eastwood, Employment Solicitor in Lancashire