Social services

Posted: 31st December 2010

Social mediaThe explosion in social networking continues with ever growing numbers signing up to and making increased use of what are now ubiquitous media. Facebook has more than 500 million monthly users whilst the numbers on Twitter grew during 2010 to more than 100 million.

For many it’s simply fun - and let’s not forget that fun is a good thing. For many more people it’s also a powerful and exciting business tool.

Of course, employers are right to be cautious. There are real disadvantages and risks. Productivity is usually one of the key concerns where staff can be engrossed and distracted. It’s not so easy to detect as a chatting crowd around the coffee machine.

Leakage of confidential information is usually the employer’s other primary concern. It’s not only the direct disclosures that may be an issue but an environment which is forever encouraging users to share information including, for example, their business and client contacts through networking sites such as LinkedIn.

There is the increased risk of vicarious liability, and employer being held responsible for unlawful acts of staff particularly where use of the internet is not regulated. Discriminatory statements, breaches of data protection requirements and heightened duty of confidentiality that apply in some walks of life (!) are all high risk areas.

Loss of reputation is another real concern for employers, even though potential damage may be virtually impossible to prove or evaluate. It will be more difficult to monitor potential that occur outside business hours and on equipment that is not owned and potentially subject to audit by the employer.

On the other side of that coin, employees may want to consider a similar risk in the context of job applications they may make and the availability of information about them which a prospective employer would not otherwise have. Coming full circle, businesses that are recruiting may face discrimination claims if it can be proved that their staff made decisions for discriminatory reasons because of information that was on the applicant’s wall, not a CV.

If and when real problems arise, the steps that an employer takes to protect its position may generate real issues of conflict with the individual’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

If these seem familiar issues then it is probably because the same questions have arisen over the last two decades with the proliferation of e-mail and use of the internet generally. Some readers of this article will no doubt recall the days when access to the web was restricted to a handful of people - even a single person - within the office!

Now, as then, business owners will produce a variety of responses, perhaps even attempting an outright ban - not easy now with so many staff likely to be carrying Apps and WAPs in their pockets!

Few employers will be oblivious to the risks and not many more are likely to disregard them as a matter of policy. The most likely scenario is that they have recognized the need to strike a balance and that some rules are required. That may be something that is on the “to do” list, or has perhaps been hurriedly done and now generates more questions than answers.

Williamsons has an interest in these matters, from a social as well as a legal perspective, and has the answers in the form of policy materials and supporting technical and practical advice. We shall be glad to advise employers looking for the key to effective control, without becoming ‘funhunters’ likely in any event to fail.

For those who are not (yet) fortunate or unlucky – however they see it – to be owners of their business, you may want to consider whether the suggestion of a social media policy would be helpful to you, your colleagues and your employers. We can help.

In the meantime, best wishes to all our readers for 2011.

Finally and fittingly, the most recent improvement to Williamsons website is the installation of those familiar buttons that help the visitor to SHARE and LIKE the news article – go on, try them out!!