In July 2021, 31 million people from across the country joined each other in watching the England playoff against Italy in the finals for the 2020 European Championship. Despite the disappointing defeat faced by the England fans, a disheartening blowback seen online was the torrent of racial abuse aimed at players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. But the issue of what employees say on social media, under the guise of personal use, and not representing the views of the company, and the unintended blowback it can have on their employers, goes beyond just the Euros.
Earlier this year, an estate agent lost his job after a video of him appearing to harass England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty for a selfie went viral, and his employer was inundated with messages, some directly calling out the company for what their employee had allegedly done on his own social media channels.
Then there was the BBC presenter Danny Baker, who was sacked after posting a tweet about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s baby – on his personal accounts, and not ones representing the BBC – which showed an image of a couple holding hands with a chimpanzee dressed in clothes with the caption: “Royal Baby leaves the hospital.”
Even politicians have been caught out with Conservative party member Toby Young, who resigned just seven days after he was appointed a non-executive director on the board of the Office for Students due to controversy surrounding tweets he had made nearly a decade earlier.
For company owners and HR professionals, for over a decade now, the implications of an employee’s personal use of social media have raised the fundamental issue of what you consider private and personal communication and the direct and indirect consequences that it could have on your business.
In this article, we look at how you can approach managing your employee’s private social media accounts, including what they say and do, as well as how to engage your workforce in managing your expectations.
Defining the six questions that should guide your decision to investigate a social media post on a ‘private’ account
In managing your staff’s personal use on social media, you’ll want to be both clear and defined on when a post crosses the line of being something ‘personal’ on a channel that the employee can expect to be separate from their work life and when the post in question starts to impact the business that they work for.
To make that decision of where a post sits on the seesaw of personal to work life, you should first look at the post in question and ask yourself:
- What is the nature of what has been said?
- Who is the likely subject of the post?
- Does the profile or post identify you as a business?
- What’s the likely reputational damage of the post on your business?
- What was the employee’s intention with the post?
- How does it conflict with your company’s social media policy and training?
How to manage your expectations on private use of social media
Broadly speaking though, if the 2020 Euros have taught us anything, being clear and concise in what you expect from your employees on social media is the easiest way to prevent any similar issues from occurring.
Firstly, have you defined to your staff the three distinct uses of social media? That being:
- Official Use: Using social media on behalf of the company to communicate messages that represent the brand on official company channels.
- Professional Use: The use of social media in an employee’s professional role to build a network of contacts and increase brand visibility, such as LinkedIn.
- Personal Use: Use of social media in an employee’s private life.
Building on that, do you have defined parameters of what constitutes a post that might impact their employment? While you could reinforce the 6 points above, you could, more broadly, define it as any post that:
- Presents negative opinions about their employee.
- Contains either private or sensitive information.
- Shows comments that constitute as hate and/or offensive speech.
- Remarks that reflect badly on the company’s public image.
But how can you engage your team in the appropriate use of their personal social media usage in the workplace?
- Remind them to exercise care when posting on social media if you, their employer, can be identified from a social media post or profile.
- Communicate with employees to avoid engagement which could adversely affect the company or its reputation.
- Remind your staff that confidential or sensitive company information should not be shared, including via social media
- Reiterate that employees are personally responsible for the content that they post on their social media channels.
- Engage in training and reminding staff that everything has the potential to become public and widespread, and once a piece of information is posted, it is very easy to lose control of that information – confidential or otherwise.
- Clearly outline to your employees that information posted may result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.
Having a workforce that is savvy with digital communication can be highly beneficial for a business. However, it can also lead to a blurring of the lines between the private and public spheres.
Employers must have a clear policy setting out what is acceptable usage of social media and provide training about the policy and its importance. This policy must be communicated to all employees. For example, if comments are made on a social media site, the employer must consider the impact of these comments. If the comments are not directly about customers, products or the organisation, it might not be reasonable to dismiss them.