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By Stephanie Boudehen
HR Advisor, Key Business Advisors

In this day and age, social media is everywhere; more and more people use it in more and more places. For a business, social media presents clear advantages such as increasing brand awareness, sharing knowledge and innovation, but it also presents risks – particularly if business owners do not understand their responsibilities and what they can do to protect their business.

A recent case between Stutsel v Linfox saw a truck driver post derogatory, offensive and discriminatory comments about a co-worker on his Facebook page. He was subsequently dismissed for breach of the company’s equal opportunity and diversity policies. However, the Fair Work Commission decided that even if the employee’s behaviour might provide a valid reason for termination of employment, it was unfair as the company did not have any appropriate policies in place.

This is a significant lesson for business owners. This decision shows that even if the employee’s behaviour justifies dismissal, the existence of social media policies is paramount in order to defend dismissal.

However, employers shouldn’t be afraid of sanctioning employees’ conduct outside of work hours if their conduct is against the company’s legitimate business interests. In O’Keefe v Good Guys, an employee did not succeed in his unfair dismissal claim relating to an explicitly offensive rant that he posted on Facebook about his senior work colleagues. The court argued that even though the employee was using his own computer, was at home when he posted the comment, and did not mention the name of the company, the post was seen by 11 of his work colleagues because they were Facebook friends. The court found that misconduct, whether at work or not, will be dealt with in the same way because social media is not like “having a conversation at the pub”; it is public, creates a permanent record, can be taken out of context, and can be republished.

As a business owner, what can you do to protect yourself from the risks associated with social media?

As seen in Stutsel v Linfox and other similar cases, the employee’s dismissal was deemed unfair because of the lack of appropriate policies. Businesses are at risk when no appropriate social media policies exist. Therefore, having and implementing a social media policy is the most effective way to protect a business and to prevent any undesired social media behavior of employees.

Before writing a social media policy, you should do a little groundwork. First, you should consult your employees to understand how they use social media. Then, you should evaluate the risks and benefits of using social media for your business. This will help define the direction the policy will take and determine its contents.

So, what should your social media policy include?

  • The policy must first define social media to ensure that every team member shares the same understanding of social media.
  • It should then include the level of control you want to have over your employees. Do you want to ban the use of social media altogether during working hours, or allow limited use? Do you want to block certain websites? Consulting employees and evaluating risks and benefits early on will help you choose the appropriate level of control for your business.
  • It should also include specific examples of what not to do on social media. These could be to not speak on behalf of the employer, not reveal confidential information, or respect the company’s code of conduct when posting comments online. It should specify which behaviours are acceptable and which ones are not. Those behaviours should be linked to other company policies, such as harassment, bullying, and equal employment opportunity to allow consistency and avoid confusion.
  • Finally, it should remind employees of the reach of social media and the permanency of comments published on the internet.

Make sure employees understand the consequences of not following the company’s social media policy. Consistency in enforcing the policy is also important. Allowing some employees to get away with breaching the policy will have consequences on other employees’ perception of fairness but, more importantly, when terminations are challenged.

Also, keep in mind that just as it is important to have and implement a social media policy in your business, it is equally important to train and educate your employees on it (and all other company policies). It is your responsibility as a business owner to ensure everyone in the business understands your company’s social media policy and has unrestricted access to it.

Social media can be a powerful tool for businesses when used correctly. It can, however, be very risky if no appropriate policies are in place, so make sure you have a social media policy in place and that everyone in the business understands it.

It is important to note that your policies must be tailored to your specific business needs, the needs of your industry, and your employees’ demographics. For help or more information, please contact Key Business Advisors’ HR team on 1300 4 ADVICE or email info@keyba.com.au.

About The Author

Colin Wilson

Director and founder, Colin Wilson drives Key Business Advisors with determination, passion, and motivation.

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