To ban, or not to ban social media? That is the question

Understanding the risks around using these platforms at work can prevent a PR disaster

In a move that garnered significant publicity, Continental recently banned workers from using Snapchat and WhatsApp due to fears that confidential information could be leaked, and data protection laws breached as a result. What many reports failed to mention was that this applied to the apps being installed onto work phones, and wasn’t an attempt to prevent staff from using the apps on their personal devices.

The double edged sword

However, in a digital age where smartphones enable billions of people to connect instantly across scores of social media platforms, social media is undoubtedly a double edged sword. In hours, if not minutes, a few words can destroy a company’s carefully crafted branding strategy. Think of HMV, where an employee live tweeted about the mass firing of 60 of its employees; Solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk, who was publicly condemned by barrister Charlotte Proudman when he commented on her profile picture (both were heavily criticised); Burberry tweeting what it thought was actor Dev Patel wearing one of their suits, when in fact it was actor Riz Ahmed, leading to accusations of race discrimination and a subsequent public apology.

In addition to the negative PR and damage to company reputation and value, employers are at risk if employees take to social media to bully others or to misuse confidential information. There’s also concerns that smartphones in the workplace drain productivity, leading to staff becoming distracted and making mistakes. A gossip laden WhatsApp conversation is likely to be more interesting than reviewing statistics on a computer.

However, on the flip side it’s clear that social media brings a wealth of opportunities to organisations. It allows staff to create relationships with each other and to engage with customers and boost business development. Used well, it can generate positive publicity, and engaged staff can become brand advocates, boosting a company’s reputation.

Be realistic

Banning social media is perhaps both unrealistic and undesirable, but managing its use by employees is essential. In particular employers should ensure that they implement a robust, clear and legally compliant social media policy that reflects their culture and brand and is endorsed – and followed - at the highest level. Communicate and publicise the policy internally, and provide training both to staff and to the managers tasked with implementing the policy. Faced with a discrimination claim an appropriate policy and staff training can be a vital defence.

Keeping abreast of developments in technology is also key, including identifying where risks lie and ensuring there is a strategy for addressing those risks. Who has access to company social media accounts, and can that access be changed if necessary? In the event of a media frenzy arising as a result of social media content, how would this be managed?

Finally, having contracts of employment that contain confidentiality provisions and post-termination restrictions is also advisable. Linked-In can be a particularly thorny area when an employee leaves, and it’s advisable to be explicit as to how this will be dealt with on departure.

Embrace social media

Technology will not be disappearing, and the lines between work and personal life will only continue to become increasingly blurred. Social media is a thing to be embraced, and if this is done the rewards will be plenty. However, understanding and managing the risks from a legal and practical perspective is essential in order to avoid a PR disaster. 

This article was originally published in City A.M. 

© SA LAW 2022

Every care is taken in the preparation of our articles. However, no responsibility can be accepted to any person who acts on the basis of information contained in them alone. You are recommended to obtain specific advice in respect of individual cases.

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