Ben Doherty, partner and head of employment at solicitors firm Lindsays, highlights some of the key risks employers face from social media and the benefits to a business of having a robust social media policy

From employees venting their frustrations with work, to members of staff bullying colleagues on social media, stories of people losing their jobs as a result of activities online are increasingly common. Employers need to be aware of the risks and what can be done to avoid them.

If an employee posts negative comments about their work, it can harm the business’s reputation. The extent of the damage depends on how public the statement is, what is said, and whether the message can be or has been reposted. Even statements not directly about the business can cause damage if the employee’s profile names them as their employer.

In other cases, employees have used social media to bully or harass colleagues. This impacts  relations and productivity, and can result in targeted employees bringing claims. 

Another common situation is where an employee who has called in sick posts photos of themselves going out. Employers who rush to discipline in these scenarios without investigating the facts or considering the severity of the situation, risk claims being brought against them. They have a duty to act reasonably which means disciplinary action taken must be proportionate and the procedure followed must be fair. Employers should also be aware that disciplining an employee for breaching the social media policy outside of working hours may only be acceptable where there is damage to the employer.

The best way to prepare for these situations and minimise risk is to have a clear policy on the use of social media during working hours, and to remind employees of their confidentiality obligations. It should also set out what actions are prohibited, such as  making derogatory remarks about their employer or adding business contacts to personal networks, and require employees insert a disclaimer that their views are their own. Policies can also notify employees that their online activity may be monitored.

Following a policy ensure issues are dealt with consistently. It lets employees know what is expected of them and makes it clear disciplinary action will be taken if they do not comply. Any grievances brought by employees regarding social media should be taken seriously and be dealt with promptly. Should a dispute arise, an employer is in a stronger position if it can point to a specific rule that has been breached and the reasonable steps taken to deal with it. The policy should be reviewed regularly.