Warning for firms over staff on social networks

Half of Irish employers are treading a legal minefield by failing to put policies in place to regulate social media use in the workplace.

The warning comes as a report shows 81% of employees access social media at work and use it for an average of an hour a day on company time.

Apart from loss of productivity, employers can face massive problems policing what is said by employees online, what contacts they cultivate, and what damage might be caused if comments are construed to be made in a professional rather than personal capacity.

However, only 51% of firms said they had a policy, 73% did not recognise the dangers of staff posting potentially sensitive company information online, and just 3% knew what business-related contacts employees made through social media.

Solicitor Catherine O’Flynn of corporate law firm William Fry, which commissioned the report, said employers were leaving themselves wide open to litigation by failing to set out rules to guide employee behaviour online.

“The big thing they are starting to get concerned about is ownership of contacts that an employee has built up through social media while in the employment of the firm and what happens to those contacts — which can be very valuable to the business — when their employment terminates. We haven’t had any litigation in Ireland yet, but there has been in the UK and the US and that’s a good indication of what’s coming down the line here. But only 17% of employers have talked about contacts and termination policy.”

Ownership of contacts cultivated through LinkedIn, which is aimed at professionals, has been at the root of numerous court cases, but disputes also arise over contributions to Facebook and Twitter, particularly where accounts are used both personally and professionally.

Avine McNally, acting director of the Small Firms Association, said social media was posing a challenge for employers who were keen to use it as a marketing and communication tool but had difficulties defining boundaries for its use.

“It’s an evolving issue. The lines between the business and the personal are blurred and employers are learning as issues arise, which is not ideal. The most important thing we would say is to put a policy in place. That’s not just to protect the company but also the employees, because the employer has a duty to protect employees from harassment and bullying if they are exposed to that kind of treatment online.”

The research was conducted with 200 Ireland-based companies and 500 employees; 43% of whom did not know if their firm had a social media policy.

The findings carry a warning for employees as employers said they screened job candidates online and more than 80% said they would be put off hiring someone who used profanity, expressed discriminatory views, or posted inappropriate photographs.

Equally, a job applicant who believes a prospective employer made a discriminatory judgement against them based on information they discovered on social media — for example that they are gay, a Traveller, or pregnant — could have a legal case against the firm.


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