Love or hate them, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are a big part of employees’ lives today. Many employers, particularly those with a young workforce raised with computers, are struggling to find ways to respond to their employees’ use of social media in the workplace and outside it.

As such sites are available 24 hours a day and are accessible not just from laptops and PCs but via phones, the boundaries between what is work time and what is personal time have become blurred.

Employers that respond to the challenges of social media by simply blocking access to such sites need to consider whether they are risking alienating their workforce and missing the opportunity to understand a communication forum with significant power. It may be that your employees already take de facto breaks throughout the day to make necessary personal phone calls or pay bills online. Should social media usage fall into the same category?

Employers that are on the front foot with social media usage will not only understand the role of these sites but can also set the “culture” in relation to use of these sites in a work context.

The risks attached to the use of social media are already well documented – decreased productivity, and legal risks associated with revealing confidential or proprietary information or the making of discriminatory comments. Adverse action is also emerging as an issue as employers respond to comments made by employees on Facebook.

In Fitzgerald v Smith [2010] FWA 7358, the employee of a hairdressing salon was sacked after posting negative comments on Facebook about her Christmas bonus and the hairdressing industry and for cancelling appointments and using salon product without her employer’s authority. The court ultimately found that the comments were not sufficient grounds for dismissing the employee. It highlighted the fact that the employee had not specifically named the employer nor had the employer suffered any detriment as a result of the posting. The message from the court, however, was clear: employees should take care with what they write on their Facebook pages.

It is not just employees, however, who are using social media inappropriately. Anecdotal evidence from the entertainment and service industries indicates that some employers are requesting print outs of Facebook profiles from prospective employees. Clearly such activity is a potential minefield for employers. It raises questions about privacy and also about the employer’s motivations in hiring staff. For example, a potential candidate with links to a union website or mental health support group might argue that he/she was not given the job because of their affiliations with a particular union or because the employer has discriminated against them because of a mental health issue.

So what can employers do to create a work environment that encourages responsible social media use?

The creation of a social media policy is a good starting point. It establishes the ground rules for employees as to their rights and responsibilities when using social media. This might be as simple as basic etiquette when posting comments to the legal ramifications of disclosing information belonging to the employer.

Some of the things that employers should consider when drafting a social media policy include:

It is not enough to just formulate a policy. It is vital not only to ensure that employees receive training in relation to a new policy but that the policy is revisited on a regular basis. Involving employees in the process is a great way to not only encourage their commitment to the principles of responsible social media usage, but employees can also be a fount of knowledge about developments in the social media space and keep employers alert to new issues. Those same employees may also be able to identify ways in which social media might play a positive role in marketing.

There is no doubt that social media can be a powerful forum for sharing information. Progressive employers will see the rise of social media as another opportunity rather than a problem.

Not Another Christmas Party Policy!

‘Tis the season to be jolly. It’s also the season for receiving that helpful list of “do’s and don’ts” on how to throw your office Christmas party.

But rest assured, we won’t be telling you what constitutes appropriate attire for the Christmas party, or whether you should be serving alcohol to your employees at Christmas lunch. We imagine you are well across such matters.

So, rather than bombard you with a list of instructions, how about a pause for reflection at this busy end of the year. What have been your organisation’s HR successes (or problems) in the past year? What more might be done to improve your workplace culture?

The workplace Christmas party is just one part of a much bigger picture. Is it indeed a respectful and inclusive celebration or in fact an outlet for built up tensions? Is the party an excuse for a sleazy booze up? Are traditions such as Kris Kringle good humoured or merely an opportunity for personal attacks? And are employees attending your workplace’s Christmas party because they want to or from a sense of reluctant obligation?

If your workplace Christmas festivities are more a cause for fear than cheer, have a think about whether this may be symptomatic of your broader workplace culture.

Employers should be thinking about the way they treat their staff throughout the year – not just at Christmas. Are staff feeling jaded, unappreciated or overworked? Do all employees treat each other with respect? How are your staff retention levels looking? Beneath the Christmas tinsel, is there “noise” around the office of inappropriate practices or behaviour?

If bells are ringing – and they aren’t of the sleigh variety – make it your new year’s resolution to review the health of your workplace and get to the bottom of such warning signs. There are a number of ways that a company can approach this. You may wish to conduct a workplace review. This can be a great way to conduct an open and qualitative exploration of what is going on in the workplace from the perspective of the employees. The information that is gathered can establish what the employer is doing right and also pinpoint what can be improved, and how.

A happy and healthy workplace should be an attainable goal not just at Christmas but all year round.

Let’s toast that. Fruit punch anyone?

Worklogic wishes you a Safe and Merry Christmas Season and a Happy and Prosperous 2011

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