Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the company had signed up its 1 billionth member. It’s incredible to think that 1 in 7 people living on this planet are using this social media site to share what they did on the weekend.

Linked In, Youtube, My Space, Twitter – Social media has quickly infiltrated our way of life. People have rapidly grown accustomed to sharing their musings on developments in the news, or their latest holiday. When it comes to sharing thoughts on life in the workplace, however, problems can arise. Whilst posting one’s thoughts about the new office manager takes less time than a stroll to the water cooler, there can be serious ramifications.

Kelly Services surveyed employees about various things including social media in their Kelly Global Workforce Index. Nearly 170,000 people in 30 countries participated in the survey, including almost 23,000 in the U.S. They found that “nearly 15 percent of the employees surveyed think it is okay to share opinions about work with friends and colleagues on social media”. Steve Armstrong from Kelly said that “the reality is that the spread of social media in the workplace is occurring faster than any rules designed to manage it”.[1]

Social media in the courts

Certainly the law in Australia is still evolving. Fitzgerald v Escape Hairdressing and O’Keefe v The Good Guys were the first cases to discuss the blurring between personal and work boundaries posed by employees using sites like Facebook to discuss work. Now in Linfox Australia Pty Ltd v Glen Stutsel, Fair Work Australia has explored the issue further. Linfox dismissed Stutsel after he made offensive and discriminatory posts about two Linfox managers on his Facebook page. Stutsel claimed that his wife and daughter had set up the Facebook page and he thought his Facebook page was private and could only be seen by his Facebook friends (when in fact the privacy setting was low).

Fair Work Australia found that Stutsel had been unfairly dismissed. They took into account the fact that he thought that his page was private and he was extremely remorseful, stating he had never intended for the managers to see the comments. They were quick to point out, however, that ignorance regarding the privacy of Facebook was an argument that would not be sustainable for much longer. Another significant factor in the decision was that Linfox did not have a policy on the use of social media by its employees, although it attempted to rely on other workplace policies. On appeal, the initial decision by Fair Work Australia was upheld.

In the U.K, a HR consultant has sued his employer for constructive dismissal after he was taken to task for posting disparaging comments about his organisation on his Linked In page and ticking the box that stated he was receptive to job offers. The case is as yet undecided.

In addition to these developments in the courts, changes to the Federal Sex Discrimination Act in 2011 confirmed that sexual harassment or unlawful discrimination via new technologies such as social media fall within the scope of the protections offered by the Act.

How should employers deal with this issue?

So where does this leave employers? The obvious take home message for employers is to ensure they have in place a social media policy that clearly articulates the organisation’s parameters for social media usage and to offer training and education to staff about social media.[2] Yet interestingly, statistics suggests that employers have been slow to formalise their position on social media usage by employees. A Manpower survey conducted in 2010 surveying 34,000 employers revealed that 75% do not have a social media policy in place.[3]

To some extent, the issues discussed here reflect a cultural shift in attitudes to privacy amongst the younger generation of employees who have grown up with the internet, and many of whom attach less importance to traditional notions of privacy. This means that for different employees the “rules of engagement” with social media are often quite different, a fact which employers must be cognisant of. Clearly defining expectations of staff means there is less scope for misunderstanding. Understanding staff’s attitudes to social media is also beneficial to any organisation wishing to leverage social media as part of its own marketing strategy.

Some further reflections

To date, the conversation with respect to social media and HR has been all about managing its use, however there
are also some bigger HR issues here which are not being explored.

The popularity of websites such as jobitorial.com and jobacle.com in the U.S. has led to similar sites in Australia such as glassdoor.com which provide a forum for employees to anonymously disparage their employers. When employees use these forums, or take to Twitter or Facebook to express their frustrations, employers need to consider why do employees use those particular forums? Are employees being given adequate opportunity to voice their complaints or concerns at work? Are inappropriate comments about the workplace symptomatic of a broader cultural issue?

Some will argue, as counsel for Mr Stutsel did, that comments and discussion on sites such as Facebook are simply another form of “pub banter”. That employees will always let off steam about work outside of hours, only now this has a new outlet in the form of social media forums. That is no doubt true to some extent, and in examining employees’ behaviour there is an important balance to be struck between people’s personal freedom to express their opinions, and engaging in behaviour that impacts others. Unlike pub banter, however, comments made in cyber space have a permanence that is not so easily forgotten in the cold light of day.

Putting aside the question of the context in which the comments were made, employers should consider whether such comments may be seen as a general barometer of employee attitudes. Do they indicate intolerance? Are employees respectful of each other’s differences? Are they informed about their responsibilities towards one another in the workplace?

Providing “real world” outlets for complaints

Another thing for employers to consider is whether employees are venting about their problems at work online because they feel they have no outlet for doing so in the workplace. Ironically, whilst technological advances have supposedly improved our
ability to communicate and stay in touch this has come at the price of good old fashioned face to face contact. For those working remotely or offsite this issue is compounded. Regular face to face communication with employees is important – and employers should prioritise regular get togethers between employees in the form of weekly meetings, or tool box chats, as a means of exploring ongoing issues or problems before they have the opportunity to fester. Employees should also be able to discuss problems or issues in private – either with a supervisor or manager or even anonymously through a complaints hotline or reporting service.

ABS statistics show that Facebook has 9.3 million users in Australia and that the biggest users of social networking sites are young people, with 88% of 15-17 year olds engaged in social networking and 86% of 18-24 year olds involved. Social Media is here to stay and as the younger generation enters the workforce its influence will only become more pervasive. Smart employers will log in and “like” Social Media and encourage employees to use it in a way that is respectful of their fellow employees.

[1] www.kellyservices.com.au
[2] Worklogic considered what information to include in a social media policy in its December 2010 newsletter which is available on our website
[3] www.manpower.com.au

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