September 07, 2011

Just because bosses can read about their staff's private lives, it doesn't mean they should

This week, a new social media guide for the workplace has finally urged bosses to be transparent and reasonable when "snooping" on their staff via social networks. And it cannot have come soon enough.

ACAS, a body which helps organisations improve relationships with their workers, published the guide in response to the "growing problem" posed by the use of social networks by employees in the workplace.

Refreshingly, the tips are incredibly progressive, urging employers not to be "heavy-handed" by penalising staff for unprofessional comments on websites such as Facebook. Online behaviour should be judged within specific contexts, as offline behaviour is. If managers check on employees' use of social media, they must make it known what they scrutinise and why.

Nearly six out of 10 staff now access social networks at work, either via their computer or smartphone, every day - and while most companies do not have any social media policy to speak of - a factor Acas is trying to change by publishing this guide - the internet still seems to many people a private place for them and their friends.

John Taylor, ACAS's chief executive, has advised bosses to be cautious about reprimanding employees for comments they make on social networking websites and having knee-jerk reactions.

He said: "If an employer is too tough, they need to consider the potential impact of any negative publicity. Heavy-handed monitoring can cause bad feeling and be time consuming.

"A manager wouldn't follow an employee down the pub to check on what he or she said to friends about their day at work. Just because they can do something like this online, doesn't mean they should."

However, it does work both ways, and if an employee does publicly insult their employer online, without applying any privacy settings, then it is the equivalent of shouting out abuse in the town square - and they can be judged for it. A balance definitely needs to be struck between what information is made public and what is put behind strong privacy settings online. But, until now, most guides have laid the onus at the feet of the person publishing information.

The ACAS guide does state that employees should assume that everything they say on the internet could be made public and that they should think about whether they want their colleagues or boss to read it. However, what this guide does which stands out from the rest is address the fact that there are contexts online, just as there are in real life. Just because bosses can read about their staff's private lives, it doesn't mean they should or even that they can use that information against them.

Indeed, the ACAS guide clearly cautions employers about the risks of "Googling" potential employees and using any personal information gleaned from the internet, such as a person's religious beliefs, in the recruitment process.

In no uncertain terms, managers have been warned that they risk being sued for discrimination if they use websites such as Facebook to look into the private lives of prospective workers and then use this information when deciding whether to hire them or not.

In a week that has seen Jodie Jones, one of Britain's youngest councillors, criticised by her colleagues for drunken photos on Facebook, taken before she assumed her post, this part of the guide needs to be taken on board by employers everywhere.

We are entering an era where everyone will have grown up with a social network profile. They may well have published embarrassing photos, the type that used to lie forgotten in dusty albums in the attic and now exist in the full glare of the internet.

Yes, privacy settings should be applied, but sometimes things slip through the net, and so context must be applied when employers come across this type of personal online information. Further, managers should tell prospective employees and current staff whether they have looked at any material and why they have done so. All "snooping" activity needs to be relevant, transparent and appropriate.

The ACAS guide also encourages employers to promote the use of social networking websites in the workplace as a "key part of business and marketing".

The recommendation comes despite a study by myjobgroup, a jobs website, which calculated that social media activity in the workplace cost the UK economy £14bn in lost productivity last year.

Some companies have taken the rash step of banning access on work computers to social networking sites such as Facebook, but doing so is incredibly short-sighted as people can easily access social networks on their smartphones. Moreover, what's the difference between frittering away hours online and old fashioned time-wasters such as making a cup of tea or having a cigarette break? ACAS has advised bosses to draft their own social media policy in order to avoid staff confusion about what is and isn't allowed online.

But rather than these policies prescribing draconian measures which limit freedom of speech, they should preach common sense and apply principles used in the real world.

Every employer does need to make it clear to their staff what the company policy is on the use of social media and employees have a duty to ensure that any information they publish online is either not publicly available, or benign enough for any reasonable manager to stomach.

But, equally, bosses must not abuse information that may be available to them through the internet if it isn't relevant.

If there is more honesty and compassion all round, the modern workplace can evolve and flourish. Ultimately, businesses will reap the rewards in kind through happy workers and clever digital communication.

Emma Barnett is the Digital Media Editor at The Telegraph.

Twitter: @emmabarnett

September 4, 2011


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