New warning over use of social media in workplace

Employers are being urged by legal experts in Sheffield to be clear and consistent in their approach to how workers use social media, either at work or when referring to it.

Irwin Mitchell’s specialist employment law team has received an increasing number of enquiries from businesses and other organisations which have made action on the issue of how their staff use social media platforms in relation to work one of their priorities for 2012.

How employees use the likes of Twitter and Facebook have gained much attention in recent months due to several high-profile cases. The latest is the tribunal related to BG Group executive John Flexman, who claims he was forced out of his job after placing his CV on LinkedIn and registering his interest in career opportunities.

Liesel Whitfield, an associate solicitor and employment law expert at Irwin Mitchell’s Sheffield office, said such cases show that firms cannot shy away from this issue any longer.

She said: “Our teams across the country are getting more and more enquiries related to the issue of how employers can approach the issue of social media in a way which does not leave them open to potential unfair dismissal claims or other action.

“While some employers impose a complete ban on any use of such websites for work-related purposes, in many sectors such a move would be disadvantageous and potentially harmful to the organisation’s own long-term progress.”

Liesel added that policies on social media offer the best opportunity for organisations to keep their staff fully informed on the issue.

“Clear policies on the use of social media will ensure that workers understand what they can and cannot do on such websites in relation to referencing their employer and their job”, she explained.

“It should be made clear that employees need to talk about any concerns about their employment internally, using the employer’s own processes (such as a grievance procedure), rather than putting workplace concerns or complaints onto a public platform where significant reputational damage could be done.

“Any social media policy or guidelines also need to be applied consistently. All employees need to be made aware of how seriously the employer will view the abuse of social media platforms and that it is a ground for disciplinary action, possibly even dismissal, if serious enough to justify it. Employers also need to act consistently in the face of such abuse; for instance if they act leniently in one situation then dismiss in another which is on similar facts, they could face a successful claim for unfair dismissal.’’