Social media at work

by The FindLaw Team

Social media, including networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, have increasingly become an HR issue around the world, including New Zealand.

While such online tools have created opportunities for employees to connect with other people and share information and ideas, both within and outside of their organisation, they also pose a number of risks to the business. 

In New Zealand, there have been personal grievances determined by the Employment Relations Authority where social networking was one of the main issues.

Key issues

The key issues with social networking are the same as they are for internet use in general:

  • Effects of personal use during work hours on productivity;
  • Potential for damage to the organisation’s reputation where an employee identifies their employer while using social media; and
  • Legal liability when the employee is acting as a representative of the employer, for example defamation, breach of copyright, or providing incorrect advice (eg immigration advice when the employee is not a licensed immigration advisor).

Ban it or allow reasonable use?

While some employers ban the use of social media altogether while at work, some allow it for business use only, and others allow a “reasonable” level of personal use while at work.

The organisation’s culture and type of work will influence whether or not employees should be permitted to use social media during work hours and/or using work equipment.

Be aware that it is possible to post on websites such as Twitter and Facebook using mobile phones and other portable devices provided for work purposes.

Identity theft is another emerging issue, especially when member sites such as Facebook often change their security settings with little or no notification to users.

Social media policies

A social media policy can be used to make it clear what level of use, if any, is acceptable and also to provide guidelines to employees on other aspects of social media, eg comments made about their employer or colleagues on their own equipment in their own time.

An example of one company’s approach to social media is Australian telecommunications company Telstra, which published a social media policy for staff and placed a social media training module online. Rather than banning access to websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the company provides a set of “guardrails” based on 3Rs: Responsibility, Respect and clarity in who you are Representing.

Ownership of social media accounts

More recently, the issue of who has ownership of professional social media accounts has emerged, particularly who gets to keep them when the employment relationship ends. There have been several US cases where ownership of such accounts has been in dispute.

In one case involving a tech review company called PhoneDog, the employee gathered 17,000 followers while tweeting on behalf of the company. When the tweeter left, he changed the Twitter handle to his own name (removing the PhoneDog part) and thus took the followers with him.

Another case involved an ex-employee who attempted to claim damages from her former employer for hijacking her LinkedIn account. The employer (who dismissed her) accessed a LinkedIn account - set up in the employee’s name - and replaced her name and photo with those of her successor. The employee had previously disclosed her LinkedIn password to a colleague. Having changed the details on the LinkedIn account, the employer locked her out of it.

The Court rejected the employee’s claim on the basis she had not suffered any direct monetary loss. The judge held that the law in question did not cover lost business opportunities

Various commentators suggest the best approach to ownership of social media is to get it in writing, and reach an agreement on ownership before problems arise.

It is also recommended that employers regularly review their digital and social media policies.

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