Is Your Company At Risk From Employees Using Social Media?

Employers are in a dilemma. How should they manage their employees’ use of social media? Many bosses are blocking access to Facebook and YouTube, thinking this will ‘protect’ their business. Actually, it does not begin to – and in any case, employees are just using their smartphones to get on whatever site they want.

When we have held workshops for business leaders on social media, there are still many who start out dismissing it all as nonsense for teenagers. Halfway through the session, most start going ‘oh my goodness, this is a huge opportunity for our business’. But as they start seeing the potential, they also wake up to the risks for their business and consider questions such as:

  • Recruitment – is it OK to look at Facebook or Twitter as part of the recruitment process?
  • LinkedIn – should everyone use a standard description of the company on their profile? Who owns their LinkedIn contacts when an employee leaves?
  • Who is in charge of the company’s social media accounts – are they the only ones to have password access and is there an exit strategy for when they leave the company?
  • And what happens if an employee posts a derogatory comment about your most important client on their private Facebook account?
  • One thing is certain – if your company has no policy, guidelines or training covering use of social media then it is almost certainly very vulnerable.

Here are some recent horror stories of how employees have made comments online that proved extremely damaging to their organisation’s reputation.

1. Ryanair

A blogger criticised a flaw in Ryanair’s online booking process and staff from the airline left several childish and insulting comments in response to the post. To make matters worse, after the episode was publicised around the web, the company issued a statement saying that ‘it is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy in corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again.’

2. Domino’s

Two employees created an extremely unpleasant video – almost certainly a prank – showing how they prepared pizzas. As an example they put pieces of cheese up their nose and then onto the pizza. The video went viral; the employees were arrested, health and safety executives shut the outlet down for decontamination, it was headline news on NBC and not surprisingly their share price dropped.

3. Hays recruitment

A Hays employee left the company and set up on his own, approaching all his contacts that he had on LinkedIn. Hays took him to court and he was ordered to hand over his contacts to his former employer. Although most people would say this was extremely tough – he had apparently signed very clear contracts that protected the company.

4. MI5

Of all organisations, you would expect MI5 to have anticipated the security issues of social media – but even they failed to get this right. The new head of MI5 was exposed for a major breach of security. It was not he, but his wife who put details of their holiday on Facebook, without any privacy settings. This case highlights the tension between what an employee can say is their private life and what impacts on their job.

5. Apple

An Apple employee criticised the iPhone on his private Facebook account outside of working hours. Apple successfully took him to court because their manual expressly forbids any employee to criticise the company’s products in any social media.

6. Recruitment

Is it OK to look at candidates’ Facebook and LinkedIn pages when recruiting? A survey released by Viadeo said that 62% of British employers now check the Facebook, My Space or Bebo pages of some applicants and that a quarter had rejected candidates as a result. Reasons given….included concerns about excess alcohol abuse, ethics and job ‘disrespect’.”

My own view is that if you do a Google search and you can see information about the employee without privacy settings – then you can take this into consideration. The most important part in all this is to have a policy in place that very clearly states what employees can and cannot do on social media. And train all employees to understand the risks and the implications to them, their job and the company.

Do you think those Domino’s employees had any idea what would happen as a result of that video? Employers increasingly have a duty of care to their employees to understand just what an ‘innocent’ comment or prank can lead to. Is this an issue concerning your company? Have you any tips to share with others on this?

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Victoria Tomlinson is founder and owner of Harrogate-based PR consultancy, Northern Lights. A former director of Ernst & Young, she started her career as a graduate trainee for Plessey and later with Bradbury Wilkinson, the banknote printers, travelling around the world to sell banknotes to foreign governments. She joined Arthur Young as part of their start-up marketing team and was made a director of client services on the management committee and managing a 100-strong division. Victoria sits on the boards of Bradford University School of Management, Northern Ballet Theatre and Common Purpose North Yorkshire. She is a Prince’s Trust mentor.