In the height of the marriage equality debate last year, a small Canberra-based business found itself faced with a flurry of both positive and negative attention after firing an employee who took to Facebook to let her followers know she’d be voting ‘no’.
Earlier that same year, a business was forced to cough up $6,200 to a former employee who wrote an offensive Facebook comment saying: “How much of the bosses c-ck did you suck?”.
And just recently, an employee of Cricket Australia in Tasmania was sacked for speaking out about the lack of access to abortion services in the state, a process that caused the employee significant distress and has resulted in legal action.
In the past five or so years, examples such as these have continued to pile up, and there’s no shortage of unfair dismissal decisions that revolve around what employees have or haven’t done on social media, at times costing businesses either thousands of dollars or plenty of negative attention, or both.
It can be a danger zone for employers, as the rise of social media has blurred the boundaries between what’s work and not-work more than ever before. According to HR experts, if you don’t have a clear social media policy, it’s high time you get one.
“It’s 100% necessary for all businesses to have a social media policy and guidelines around that sort of activity,” says Deborah Peppard, director and HR professional at HR Staff’n Stuff.
“It’s here to stay, and businesses have the right to regulate the expectations of how their employees act on global social media.”
Peppard’s HR firm has worked with a number of employers across Australia, both big and small, and in the last 12 to 24 months, she says nearly all of them have implemented a social media policy. She estimates around 40% of those implementations were in reaction to an incident on social media by one of their employees.
It’s a fine line
Despite her strong advocacy for social media policies for all employers, Peppard cautions businesses away from trying to impose policies around personal or political beliefs, such as what appears to have happened in the Cricket Australia case.
Social media policies do not give businesses the right to regulate employees’ social activity in their own time, nor regulate their political position, she says.
“SMEs have to walk that fine line between when an employee is working as a representative for a company, and when they’re interacting with own social media pages and expressing a personal view,” says Peppard.
“We tell employees of clients that they can have whatever views they want, but they shouldn’t be expressing them when acting as a representative of a company.”
This means employees shouldn’t be making comments about the business on social media, nor sharing confidential information about the business or its clients on social media.
Peppard also believes it’s key for businesses to outline when and how employees are allowed to use social media while working, saying it’s much easier to align a tweet by an employee with a company when the tweet was made during working hours.
In the unfair dismissal case mentioned above, one reason the Fair Work Commission sided with the employee was because it found it was reasonable that the Facebook post could have been made while the employee was on a break from work.
According to Peppard, there are five things employers need to have in social media policies:
1. No disparaging comments against the business
A policy should prohibit employees making disparaging comments about the employer and employees of the business, Peppard advises.
2. Know who can represent the business
“Make sure employees know they can’t represent or make comments on behalf of the business on social media, or any media, unless they’re authorised to do so,” she says.
3. Stay confidential
Businesses should ensure employees are aware of the consequences of intentionally or even inadvertently breaching the confidentiality of business or supplier information.
4. Don’t share private conversations.
Staying confidential should also apply to non-business office conversations. Peppard says policies should also include rules against employees sharing private conversations with other employees on social media
5. Make it count.
Finally, if you’re going to implement these rules, make sure they’re actually rules.
“It’s a policy, not a suggestion. There should be proper ramifications for breaching it,” says Peppard.
At the same time, she urges employers to be reasonable and think about the intent when it comes to employee’s social media posts.
“Think about if they meant purposeful harm to the business or another employee, or if it was just a one-off lapse in judgment. Think about if they’re intentionally trying to harm the business, and be a bit reasonable in your application,” she says.