Up the Twitter

By: Georgina Harris

Date: 8 March 2011

You might think your main problem with Facebook is the sheer boredom. Oh, the relentless fun of those endless updates of daily lives – how did we survive before we knew Jade Green in Payroll had dodgy tuna for lunch?

But if you’re the boss, watch it: your staff could be sharing more than their daily diet of banality with the rest of the planet. Sneaked into that gripping account might be the killer comment about clients, customers or, heaven forbid, the management, which could empty your order book faster than the tuna’s cheeky 3pm revenge on Ms Green.

Most pitifully, you can’t rely on anyone you know to be too bored to read it – or forward it. Especially not in work time or if it’s properly rude/funny. As lawyers are fond of quoting, “A good name, like good will, is got by many actions and lost by one” – from Victorian judge Francis Jeffrey, who knew the value of a Tweet-length message to business about Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn before his time.

Your staff probably use these forums to communicate, if not to work. This has blurred the distinction between personal and work life and created much legal strife. The latest case in this area ended up at the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), who ruled a civil servant’s grumbles to her mates on Twitter about Dept of Transport cuts and a punishingly late night in the pub were “public”. Like many of us, the bleary Miss Baskerville didn’t realise we live in a public age but the Daily Mail did and she and the Dept of Transport ended up with more than a hangover.

While it might seem mean to haul a whingeing worker into court, not to mention a bit unnerving for anyone employed who isn’t on Prozac, the fact remains this employee embarrassed and discredited her employer. As social media users grow ever faster in the UK, so does the risk of this happening to your business. Like it or not, you need to take action – but what can you sensibly do without impinging employees’ privacy?

There’s no need to monitor every communication. Apart from the agonizing tedium, it’s intrusive and probably illegal. If you must, monitor it in a way that is compliant with data protection and privacy laws; for instance, you must tell everyone you are tapping their channels. Instead, create a wide-ranging social media policy from your organisation for employees and freelancers. Make sure they read it; if you don’t communicate with them they may be able to waltz off with your most valuable clients contacts, if not worse.

Explain what business information is confidential. That probably includes mailing lists, finances and new products as well as client details and computer passwords. Don’t put temptation in anyone’s way; limit access to anything juicy to those who need it and set up your IT to block exits of confidential information from your server. Remind staff that once confidential material is gone, it’s gone forever.

Tell the staff, where you can, that contact lists are yours. That covers client and mailing lists as well as your employee’s LinkedIn account. State your ownership clearly where you can – wherever they originated from. If your most useful lists contain contacts employees have introduced to the firm or brought with them, case law suggests that the whole list belongs to your firm – make this clear to staff who may, not unreasonably, believe lists containing old friends or trusted freelancers are ‘theirs’. Include this clause in employment contracts too.

Keep work phones, blackberries and ipads for professional communications only. Yes, it’s joyless – no, you don’t need to be held liable for an employee’s rudeness, harassment or bullying. Unlawful treatment of others also applies to online communication. Add this clause to your equality policy too.

Don’t let staff be rude about your business online, ever. Think about whether you can cope with identifiable staff commenting on their working life in a forum. If you can, be very clear that you won’t tolerate criticism about customers, clients or products. Include examples, such as the Facebook addicts at British Airways who were fired for declaring happy holidaymakers “fat and smelly”.

Once you’ve established a policy, employees will be clear about what they can and can’t say and be more likely to do it; they will also know they can face disciplinary action for breaching it, which should improve the safety of your business reputation and information. End of status update.

Georgina Harris, Law Donut editor

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