Less than a year ago, the Oxford English Dictionary, named the word 'selfie' as the winning 'Word of the Year 2013', with a staggering 17,000% increase in recorded usage over that year. Shorthand for 'self-portrait photograph', the word in most cases refers to self-portraits snapped with mobile devices, and uploaded instantly to one's social media network of choice; be it Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
In just over a decade, social media portals have taken the world by storm, transforming and simplifying the way in which we interact with each other and, in the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg's own words: "making the world more open and connected." Such a sudden change in the way we communicate has had drastic effects on many aspects of our daily lives, with the workplace being no exception. Nevertheless, although many might genuinely believe that their private and personal online behaviour has nothing to do with one's working life, employers around the world are increasingly at loggerheads over their employees' behaviour on social media, and its effects on workplace productivity, time-management and company reputation.
Recruitment is also gradually adapting, with HR professionals increasingly changing their recruitment methods, checking candidates' social media profiles in search of tell-tale signs of bad character traits, such as excessive alcohol consumption, bad language or poor spelling on the candidate's tweets and Facebook posts. However, although these practices might appear harmless at face value, employers should be wary of relying too much on social media profiles, which contain personal and sometimes sensitive information, since these could lead to potentially discriminatory recruitment choices and possible data protection breaches.
The unrestricted use of social media networks at the place of work can also become a serious distraction for workers choosing to waste their employer's time and money instead of performing their assigned working tasks. Recent UK studies and surveys suggest that time wasted on social media during working hours may be costing the UK economy up to 6% of its GDP, translated roughly into a staggering £14 billion in lost productivity annually. The unrestricted use of these sites can also lead to undesired disclosures of sensitive business information and contacts. With this in mind, employers can resort to the proportionate monitoring of employee computer and Internet use at the office, to ensure the moderate and acceptable use of these networks. However, such monitoring needs to be carried out diligently and in full compliance with the relevant data protection principles applicable to the place of work and ensure that a balance is struck between the employer's right to protect his or her commercial interests, and the employee's right to privacy.
Social media portals, such as Facebook or Twitter, owe much of their popularity to their ability in facilitating communication, helping long-lost friends connect, keeping fans in touch with their favourite celebrities, and facilitating friendships with colleagues and workmates. However, such easily accessible communication tools can also prove to be dangerous, breaking down the already-fading boundaries between working time and private life.
Therefore also in this context, it is easy to see how such social media sites can be used irresponsibly, creating problematic workplace scenarios. Through social media, sexual harassment has moved from the four walls of the physical office to the virtual workplace, taking the shape of unwanted photos or harassing messages, repeatedly sent 'friend requests', or annoying Facebook 'pokes'. Clear and fair policies at the work place are a must.
For instance, 'Fraping' is a recently-coined slang term, which refers to the altering of information on a personal social media profile without the person's permission. Most fraping incidents are committed jokingly and taken with a pinch of salt by the 'victims' of such practical jokes, however a recent UK case has shown otherwise, with the frape victim successfully proving in front of the British Courts that the frape was deeply offensive and constituted sexual harassment. In light of all this, it is imperative to keep in mind that Maltese law places a positive obligation on the employer to ensure a harassment-free workplace, and failure to act in this regard can lead to the employer being held liable for such omission.
Another increasingly important aspect of social media in the employment context is termination of employment related to social media misbehaviour. The irresponsible use of social media portals, even in an employee's private time, might, depending on the circumstances, constitute a good and sufficient cause at law for an employer to terminate his employee's contract.
Employees around the world are being sacked for a variety of reasons ranging from a teacher uploading pictures in disreputable places on Facebook, to managerial employees being dismissed for expressing their political and moral opinions on the Internet. Cases of the sort have increased dramatically in the past few years, with employers and employees increasingly disputing the legitimacy or unfairness of these kinds of dismissals. Nevertheless, employers should tread carefully, as although gross misbehaviour on social media may appear to be a justifiable excuse to fire an employee, such dismissal needs to be a proportionate measure, taken as a last resort and only in extremely serious circumstances.
Employers and HR professionals today can be faced with a multitude of other issues connected to social media, such as ownership rights over social media accounts and databases, the use of official company profiles and social media accounts with company names, and a plethora of similar matters which will continue to arise, as social media cements its important position in our daily routines and lives.
As always, prevention is a better cure in these circumstances, and a well-drafted, internal social media policy can mean the difference between an easily-resolved internal dispute and a legal blunder with all its unsightly repercussions.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.