monitoring employee use of social media

Many employers have come to terms with their employees spending some of their time in front of a screen on non-work related tasks, whether it’s checking personal emails or scrolling through social media feeds.

Research by Safetica, an employee monitoring and data protection software provider, has shown that 32% of respondents used personal social media during work hours and 23% had browsed for other jobs during work hours. And, according to a study by online monitoring software firm Clearswift, in 2011 one third of UK companies blocked their employees from using social media at work.

But is this the right approach? More and more companies recognise the business benefits of social media use by employees and rather than forbid them, offer guidelines and advice.

Social media guidelines – an example

Computer giant IBM has published a guide to help employees use social media, safely and responsibly. These guidelines blend tips on the use of social media tools with general advice on business conduct. Employees are expected to uphold the company’s normal standards of corporate conduct when using social media.

The guidelines also:

• say employees are responsible for the content they publish online, in whatever format or network

• remind employees that what they publish remains public for a lengthy period

• urge employees to protect their privacy and make sure they find out about a site’s terms of use

• tell employees to identify themselves and their role in the organisation when commenting on IBM products or services

• say they must make it clear that they are speaking for themselves and not for the company.

This underlines how important it is to make it clear to all employees what their rights and responsibilities are, especially given different attitudes to privacy, and what the law says in this area.

Legal aspects

So what does the law say in relation to monitoring? The Privacy Act 1988 regulates the handling of personal information about individuals. This includes, among others, the collection, use and disclosure of personal details.

Employers are generally allowed to monitor staff’s use of email and the internet, as long as employees have been advised in advance. However, where monitoring includes retaining records, the privacy principles of the Act may apply.

Employees may be disciplined, or even dismissed, for certain online activities, both during work and outside the workplace. Some valid reasons include:

• online defamation of the employer or its customers

• bullying and harassment of other employees

• unlawful vilification of certain protected groups(for example, on the grounds of race)

• illegal downloads

• breaches of the employer’s social media and use of the internet policies.

Putting the law to one side, it’s the very best practice – and the fairest way for all concerned – for an organisation to proactively communicate its intentions and consult employees about its approach to monitoring social media use – and how this applies to the private use of social networking sites as well.

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