With more than 200 million users worldwide, Facebook is cropping up more and more during work hours. Employment lawyer Vanessa Di Cuffa looks at the status of regulating Facebook use.
Over the past 12 months, the growth of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo has skyrocketed, making it impossible for anyone working in employment law to claim ignorance of the massive distraction these internet phenomena bring to the workplace.
At the same time, their popularity has raised a number of legal queries for employers, who are understandably keen to oversee and regulate the hours that hundreds of thousands of UK employees spend at work, logging on to such sites.
A number of employers have already moved to ban Facebook at work, in the belief that it encourages employees to waste time for which they are being paid. It is, of course, quite within the rights of an employer to decide how their IT equipment is used. However, in the spirit of compromise, it is both feasible and practicable to draw up policies to regulate internet usage, and such enforced guidelines can prove highly effective.
Indeed, the use of Facebook can actually be of significant benefit to employers. For example, it would be of no surprise to learn that employers are quite within the law to use the site to monitor their employees, particularly when absent through purported sickness. We have all seen people off work posting entries on their Facebook page which, if seen by an employer, may lead them to conclude that the employee is not sick at all.Even if this type of information is passed to an employer by another employee or an associate, it can be used to invoke some form of disciplinary action. Obviously, the employer has to carry out a reasonable investigation into the alleged deception, and there is also the need to offer the employee the right of defence.
A word of warning here, though. An employer should take account of the fact that when someone is off work sick, it does not mean they are incapable of doing anything. Some illnesses require an employee to engage in activities which others may not consider appropriate. It is therefore prudent for an employer to investigate fully the circumstances and any alleged condition before making rash decisions.
Other common Facebook legal queries include employees posting inappropriate comments about work and their employer on the internet. What if they are posting photographs of colleagues without their consent? What if an employee is writing comments which could be considered discriminatory?
Defamatory or inappropriate postings about work, colleagues, clients and similar can be used to instigate disciplinary proceedings. They can also be used by the employer to eliminate prejudice. Indeed, if this type of information is uncovered, there is an obligation on the part of an employer to act on it and to enforce their equal opportunity policy.
It is, of course, difficult to monitor the behaviour of an employee outside of work and it may be necessary to amend policies to set out exactly how such behaviour will be treated by an employer. Actions which are taken in the course of employment need to be tackled by an employer, but even actions taken outside of employment may require corporate attention.
Overall, whilst many employers see Facebook as somewhat of a scourge, its benefits to employees and to the business as a whole are undeniable. Marketing and networking are its absolute strengths. Its weaknesses, including its ability to distract and consume a complete workforce, are manageable.
Strict and reasonable corporate HR policies on internet usage have to be the way ahead for every workplace in the UK. With millions in the UK already registered on Facebook, it is in every employer’s interest to tackle the above issues sooner, rather than face the potential fallout later.
* Vanessa Di Cuffa is head of employment at Freeth Cartwright in Birmingham.