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Social media - What employers should do

Engaging in social media has long since moved away from being something 'personal' that employees do on their own time and that has nothing to do with their workplace. Not only has the lines between work and home become blurred with remote working, but many organisations use platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn extensively, and encourage their staff to utilise these for all sorts of purposes. BUT - using social media is a risky business, and employees do not always understand or appreciate this. This means that they can (inadvertently) cause trouble for your business - even if they did not post or comment in their 'work' capacity. And they may not know that their employer would be entitled to discipline them if their (private) engagement on social media impacts negatively on the organisation. Employees need to be aware of social media behaviour or posts that would be unacceptable, or have adverse consequences, in the context of their employment. Standards may differ depending on the organisation - for example in Schools, educators are often held to a higher standard as role models to learners, than what would be the case in a corporate environment. It is therefore prudent for employers to have a social media policy to protect their organisation and to educate their staff appropriately and specifically in this regard. This would be applicable to both on- and off-duty social media conduct.

📌 The social media policy should ideally form part of the employer's broader IT / acceptable use / information security policies; 📌 It should be to the point, in plain language, and be developed around your organisation's business needs or particular risks that have been identified; 📌 It should also correspond in general terms with other policies that reflect the employer's particular values and standards - for example its policies on harassment or hate speech; 📌 The employer's rules and standards around confidentiality, protection of personal information or copyright infringements are also relevant and should be cross-referenced and explained to staff within the social media context; 📌 Most importantly, such a policy should be regularly reviewed and updated - and employees regularly reminded of the contents. It is no use to have a document somewhere, but its practical implementation and application are lacking. This brings me to the next point. Employers should be mindful that they can incur liability for the conduct of their employees in certain circumstances. Liability can also arise from offending posts (by anybody) on an official company page, or in a WhatsApp group where the employer or one of its staff is the Admin of the group/page; or where an employee comments inappropriately. In South Africa, our law has a principle called the "chain of publication" - which basically means that if you associate with an offending post, you might also be held liable for any fallout from it.

  • Admins of groups and pages are usually the only ones who can remove inappropriate posts, and failure to monitor and remove posts as may be necessary, could imply such an association.

  • Third-party users (or employees) who comment on or react positively to such posts, can also share in the liability. Even not disassociating yourself from an offending post, could be interpreted as a 'tacit' association. If you are for example part of a WhatsApp group where an inappropriate conversation is taking place, it is important to make your disassociation clear by saying so in the group, or alternatively leaving the group. It must be clear: "not in my name".

Employers need to formulate the necessary rules and standards to regulate what (un)acceptable social media conduct in relation to its specific organisation is, and to ensure that all employees are aware of this on an ongoing basis. Spending time and effort on precautionary measures can go a long way to avoid serious consequences later on.

© Judith Griessel


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