Blurred Boundaries

June 3, 2013

Social Media and Work

It used to be so much easier

Only a few years ago – no more than five – it was very easy to set boundaries for employees.   Work was work and social/personal/domestic activity was not.  Non work activity was easily identified and separated from work activity.  Employers varied in their attitude towards employees’ ‘right’ to make personal calls or to engage in non-work activities during work time, but it was much easier to monitor such activity, and so much easier to establish and maintain control of what your staff were doing during working time.

Where does work stop and social activity begin?

This is the case no longer.  Many employees now rely on the internet to carry out at least part of their duties.  This gives them authorised access to the web with the infinite opportunities it provides to carry out social activities whilst at work.  Add to this Facebook and Twitter as well as the multitude of other social media sites available to us, and throw in the good old mobile phone, text message and other apps available through our mobile devices and it’s a wonder that anyone finds time to do any work at all!

A culture of informality and flexibility

Because the workplace has become generally more relaxed and informal a culture has built up in many organisations that send out the message that it’s ok to text your way through the day and to keep a constant check on your Facebook page and your Twitter messages, interrupting your work activity at the sound of a message alert.   Employers, not wanting to be considered inflexible in this age of the caring employer and the family friendly policy, have more often than not turned a blind eye in the hope that employees will respond by at least prioritising their work over there personal agenda  and, of course, going the extra mile when needed .  But this does not seem to be the case for many employers we have talked to.

It’s getting out of control

A number of our clients have informed us recently that things are getting out of control.  Staff are constantly attached to their mobile phones during working time, and the sending and receiving of personal emails at work is almost as frequent as work-related email exchanges.  Not only that, with easy access to the internet through the day, employees are doing their Tesco shop, buying a new pair of shoes and downloading that money off voucher for Pizza Express for their evening meal – and the worst thing is, they don’t think there is anything wrong with it!

Risks to your business

But it’s not just the frustration of being unable to get your employees to work during working hours, there is a serious risk, because the boundaries have become so unclear, that employees may be stepping over the line whilst on social media.  They may be referencing your business, even attempting to promote it or denigrate it, in ways over which you have no knowledge or control.  This presents a serious threat to employers, not just in terms of the damage that inappropriate or negative PR can do, but also potential breaches of confidentiality and data protection that could land you in very hot water.

Calling a Halt

So what should employers do, when they know that most of their staff are participating in these activities on a daily basis at work and it is becoming a real problem that is beginning to seriously affect productivity?  How do you pull back from a relaxed environment without losing the goodwill of your staff who  have responded to the culture that you have allowed to develop?

Educate and train your employees

Talk to your employees.  If you already have an established practice that is becoming an issue for you, explain to your staff that your business cannot tolerate excessive and/or misuse of social media activity which is damaging your bottom line.  Set clear guidelines on when it is acceptable for personal activities to take place and when it is not.  Allow access during meal breaks but not at other times unless it is an emergency and monitor through your IT systems.  Think carefully before blocking all access to the internet – this can cause a reaction from disaffected employees who may feel they are being penalised for the excesses of others.

Review, update or create a Social Media Policy

Having done this, get it in a clear policy for issue to all staff, and new employees.  If you have it all written down and you get to the point where you have to consider disciplinary action, it is critical that you can refer to a detailed policy that spells out just what is and what is not acceptable.

Protect Sensitive and Confidential Data

Make sure all your confidential data is password protected and that these passwords are  managed through your IT systems.  Limit access to such data to those staff who have legitimate reasons for access, and establish a clear procedure for authorising access.  This may take a while to set up, but once operational will be an easily managed routine procedure.

Set up PR system of approval

If you want to encourage employees to promote your business through social media, set up a PR system of approval so that all communications referencing the company pass through this process.  Allowing employees to use their discretion on how to promote your business is fraught with dangers that could cause major damage to your business.

Create and Execute an Emergency Plan

And what happens if things go wrong?  You need to have an emergency plan for protecting your business and make sure that it is ready to be activated if you are faced with a problem.  This will include contact arrangements for your clients and the ability to shut down and delete communications that may be inappropriate or worse still, put you on the wrong side of the law.

Set an example

Cultures develop in the workplace largely through the examples that are set by senior managers.  Make sure that you walk your talk and keep your personal communications private and outside the working environment wherever possible.

Restrictive Covenants

Sadly the problem doesn’t end when employees leave you.  It is essential that a restrictive covenant is incorporated into all employment contracts to prevent employees from approaching your clients through social media after they have left your employment.  Add to this a clause preventing them from posting information about your company, it’s employees or customers following employment with you.  Make it clear that you will pursue any breach through the courts.

For guidance on contracts of employment, policies and procedures or for further information our free HR Healthcheck contact us on 01462 433033 or 07974 314312 or email