How should companies deal with their employees' activities on social networks and do sites like Twitter and Facebook increase or decrease productivity?
Today's businesses have realised that social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, can benefit companies and their reputation but also that their usage can also distract employees from their tasks. One principal question for companies in the context of social media is whether the use of sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn increases or decreases productivity. Research on the matter has not been conclusive, but the overwhelming conviction is that employees are less productive if they are active on social media sites during office hours.
Moreover, beyond the loss encountered by companies because of decreased productivity - the use of social media sites can also pose a security threat to a businesses' network. As such, many companies have chosen to block such websites. However, employees may still be accessing their personal emails and online profiles on private devices, such as mobile phones and personal laptops.
If employees' use of social media sites negatively affects their work performance, then an employer may be allowed to take disciplinary action. Employers should first attempt to solve the matter amicably with the employee by talking through the company's policy on computer usage and what expectations there are on the employee.
But there are instances in which an employee's online actions will give managers no choice but to dismiss them. This was the case for one Apple employee who worked in a retail store in Norwich, in the United Kingdom. The employee used Facebook to express his discontent with the company's products and his job. His activities were brought to his manager's attention by a fellow colleague and he was dismissed. Unhappy about being unemployed, the dismissed employee took the matter to an employment tribunal. Although the tribunal sided with the company and considered that the management had been justified in dismissing him.
The courts have also ruled that comments made by an employee on online forums in their private time are not necessarily private and, therefore, may not be outside the parameters of their employer. The company Tele Tech dismissed an employee after he posted sexually derogatory comments from his private computer in his own time about a female co-worker on Facebook. The dismissed employee brought actions against Tele Tech, but the company's line of action was supported by the court as the remarks amounted to sexual harassment. As such, online conduct that would amount to bullying if it took place in the workplace can be grounds for dismissal.
Before considering dismissing an employee or taking disciplinary action, companies often seek legal advice from a solicitor to ensure they are acting within the boundaries of the law. This can safeguard the business to make sure it is not found guilty of unfair dismissal in the future. The law has not quite kept up with the development of social media and it is likely that further regulation will be introduced.Therese Wallin is a contributing writer for the Thomson Reuters business Contact Law and is currently studying for the bar