Social Media: To Tweet or not to Tweet?
The papers are awash with stories of social media faux pas. Just this month a part time judge, Recorder Jason Dunn-Shaw, was subject to a professional conduct investigation for using a pseudonym to post inappropriate comments on an online newspaper article regarding a case he had presided over as a judge. He had also used his own name to post what were deemed to be inappropriate comments in publically available social media sites. The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice concluded that this behavior fell below the standard expected of a judicial office holder and removed Mr Dunn-Shaw from his post.
This is not the first case of a professional person being held accountable by their regulators for the comments they make online. In 2016 a dental nurse, Nadia Armstrong was reprimanded by the GDC for unpleasant comments she made on her own Facebook page regarding a girl who was nearly killed during an Orange march in North Belfast.
And whilst it is unsurprising that Professionals, who are by dint of their role within society, are expected to be held to a higher standard of behaviour, is this policing of private comments being expressed on public forums being taken too far?
Just this week, Felix Ngole, was given permission by the High Court to Judicially Review the decision of Sheffield University removing him from his two year Master programme in Social Work as a result of him stating during a Facebook debate that “the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin”. His removal from the programme effectively barred him from entering his chosen profession, the decision was apparently made on the basis that he was “unfit to practice”. Whilst this case raises numerous issues regarding religious freedom and the suitability to be considered for certain roles, it also highlights the risk to free speech that the over regulation of social media can cause. Surely it was the role of those who regulate social workers to determine Mr Ngole’s fitness to practice, not Sheffield University.
So how can an employer strike the right balance between allowing their employees free speech, but whilst also ensuring that the employee does nothing to damage the business’ reputation? And what can be done if a derogatory, inappropriate or offensive comment is made?
Blogs and similar media are a fantastic way of providing your customers with useful information, whilst showcasing your particular talents. Similarly the contribution to online forums can be an excellent and time efficient way to business network and develop. However, before allowing any member of staff to contribute under the company name, ensure you have a social media policy in place.
At the outset, a senior staff member should be nominated to monitor the nature of the comments that are being posted, not only on the company website, but also on third party platforms.
Staff should be given clear guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable conduct online. This should set out not only the ambit of what should be said and what should be commented upon, but also the tone which should be used when speaking on behalf of the company.
The policy should make clear that it is intended to cover all social media, not just those platforms formally used by the business.
A decision must be made as to whether any use of personal social media is allowed during the working day. This is entirely a business decision, employers may feel that it is unrealistic to expect employees to have no access to social media during the working day, and that a more moderate approach, limiting the time spent to occasional use which does not interfere with their work responsibilities would be more beneficial to staff morale.
6 clauses to be included on your social media policy
The policy should include all prohibited behaviour. Restrictions and guidance on behaviour should include:
- Clear guidance as to the extent of an employee’s use of company IT resources.
- Their use of the company’s private and confidential information.
- Their use or publication of third party confidential material such as clients or suppliers that should not be made public.
- Guidance to ensure that other members of staff are not subject to harassment or bullying online.
- A prohibition on discrimination.
- A prohibition on making any negative comments about the business, its employees or any of its contacts or competitors.
The consequences of breaching the acceptable behaviour outlined in the social media policy can include taking disciplinary action which could result in dismissal for gross misconduct, dependent upon the severity of the breach.
However, the key to the effective and trouble free use of social media in the work place will depend upon the engagement and training of staff. Attempting to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on their personal profiles will result in a secretive and poorly engaged staff. Educating staff members of the dangers of social media, and the damage that careless or hurtful comments can do is by far the preferable course.
When can a business challenge an unpleasant or unfair online comment?
With all the positives that the internet has brought to marketing businesses, it is now extremely easy for disgruntled customers, or even jealous competitors, to comment about your business online. There are circumstances in which objection and legal action can be taken to reduce the risk of damage to your business reputation. Always utilise the social media platforms internal complaints procedure first as there may be a quick and easy way to remove abusive comments.
However if this doesn’t work, you can consider taking more serious action. If an online comment can be shown to have been first published in the previous 12 months; lowers the subject in the estimation of right-thinking members of society; has or is likely to cause serious harm to the subject and is not true or an honest opinion, it could amount to defamation, and civil court action could be pursued.
Alternatively, one could consider an action for malicious falsehood where the author of the untrue and damaging material has published that content online with an improper motive, and the subject has suffered financial loss.
However, there is also the option of calling the police. Where someone is subject to a course of conduct that causes them harassment, alarm or distress, the person posting the offensive comments online may well be guilty of an offense of harassment. This would however require the remarks to be made about an individual rather than a business.
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Julia Furley, Barrister