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The Impact of Social Media at Work - Web Filtering

Posted by Ronan Kavanagh on Wed, Nov 14th, 2012

Social media is here to stay.  Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, news or entertainment blogs, employees are using social media, and increasingly they’re doing it on the employer’s time.  While the infiltration of social media at work was always inevitable, use of social media on the company’s time can be both beneficial and detrimental to the image and reputation of the company.  Employers should be aware of the potential value they can derive from social media, as well as the potential risks and pitfalls. 

Some employers may fear that these social media related activities are simply wasting their employee's time and reducing their productivity, while others feel that a bit of social web surfing makes employees happier and more productive.  Measures put in place by employers vary across the board, some employers might simply block access to social media websites; others might allow access, but monitor usage to ensure employees aren’t spending all their time socializing, watching funny videos or browsing unsavoury content that has no place in the work environment.

To Block or Not to Block

The ability to block whatever the employer wants is always an option with today’s advanced web filters and monitoring software.  But is this the right choice for a business competing in the digital age?

There are countless reasons why employers would choose not to block their employee’s access to social media sites.  Chief among these reasons is that businesses are beginning to realise that utilising social media can have various benefits for them in terms of marketing, sales and public relations.  If businesses are stubborn and refuse to change with the times they are in great danger of becoming extinct.  Just about every business these days sees it as essential to have a Facebook page trying to promote their product or service.  It is difficult for businesses that actively use social media sites as part of their marketing and sales strategy, to then turn around and ban their employees from accessing these sites.  Where do you draw the line?  Also, there is much to be said about the effect of these certain restrictions on staff morale; many businesses appear to think that banning access to social media sites is a heavy handed approach which indicates a lack of trust in employees.  Employees working in an autocratic environment can be more likely to underachieve and show lower levels of motivation and productivity. 

Despite all these warnings about negative consequences there are still a host of businesses that see banning of social media sites as the optimal solution.  The reason behind absolute banishment of social media sites comes down to, for many businesses, to two issues, security and loss in productivity.  Cybercriminals are thriving of the back of the social media explosion and use these sites as a medium for targeting and attacking unknown users at home and at work.  Another factor that may carry negative implications is that of lost productivity, which can result from extensive unrelated web browsing by employees at work.


How to Prevent Social Media Abuse at Work

In a recent newsletter from Purdy Fitzgerald Solicitors they discuss some preventative measures to put in place in order to minimise the abuse of social media and all elements of web 2.0 at work.

1.   Monitoring Internet usage and E-mail at Work

It is now common practice and generally advisable for employers to monitor their employees internet and e-mail usage.  However, doing so can present some difficulties for employers and there are certain issues which they must be wary of.  These difficulties pertain to fact that the monitoring of employee email and internet usage involves the processing of personal data and, as such, data protection law applies to such processing.

In this regard employers should take note that The Article 29 Working Party has adopted a Working Document on the surveillance of electronic communications in the workplace.  The Article 29 Working Party is an advisory group which is composed of representatives of the data protection authorities of all Member States and its purpose is to ensure a uniform application of data protection law across the European Union.  Thus the findings of The Article 29 Working Party must be taken into account by employers who monitor their employee’s internet and e-mail usage.

The Working Group stated that in producing the Working Document that they were doing so with the intention of striking a balance between employers and employees rights.  On the one hand it is recognised that employers have certain legitimate rights and interests, in particular their right to run their business efficiently to a certain extent, and above all, the right to protect themselves from the liability or the harm that workers' actions may create.  However, the foregoing must be balanced against the fact that employees have a legitimate expectation of a certain degree of privacy in the workplace.

 2.   Implementation of an Internet Usage Policy

Nowadays it is critical for employers to have a visible and specific internet usage policy in place.  The policy should include all Web 2.0 applications, including blogging, bulletin boards, chat rooms and the most popular networking sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, it should also outline the policy on mobile and wireless devices, such as, Smart phones and iPads.   A brief look at the available case law examples in this area illustrates the significance of this point.  Cases of employees being fired over disparaging their employers through social media sites and emails have been brought to the Employment Appeals Tribunal.  In some of these cases it was found that the employers had no e-mail and internet policy in place which explained what was prohibited and further what were the consequences of misusing the internet and/or e-mail, in these instances the former employees were deemed as unfairly dismissed and awarded substantial damages.

A current example that stresses the importance of an Internet policy in place is:

In April 2012, Vodafone Ireland suspended two members of staff after a photograph appeared on the internet allegedly showing a worker posting abuse of a customer on a computer screen behind the counter in one of its stores.  Vodafone launched an investigation into the matter. The ability of Vodafone to discipline or dismiss the employees in question will largely depend on whether there is a policy in place, which was communicated to the employees, governing employees’ usage of the internet and social media.

Best Practice

While it may be a hot topic of debate in the foreseen future, one thing is for certain, that when it comes to social media and internet usage policies, it’s not a one glove fits all situations and businesses.  A degree of discretion and an element of compromise are advised to all businesses when it comes to dealing with their usage policies.  Each company must weigh up the pros and cons of social media when compiling their usage polices.  They must ensure they make these polices visible and readily available to all staff to inform them what is expected from them. 

When drafting a social media policy there are a number of issues which must be covered to ensure that said policy is appropriate and effective.  These include:

  • Firstly, the policy should clearly set out its scope and in particular should state that it encompasses participation in and use of social media, regardless of whether such use occurs in the workplace or not.  This should include who is allowed access .i.e. sales team, marketing team, the purpose of usage and a comprehensive list of conduct that employees are prohibited from engaging in online
  • For clarity sake it is advisable to specify what constitutes social media
  • The policy should also confirm the consequences and sanctions which will apply if there is a breach of the terms of the policy.  In this regard it is important to verify that all of the company's employment policies, and in particular the disciplinary policy, apply to conduct that occurs online in the same way that they apply to conduct that occurs in the workplace.

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