By Marcus Leach

Businesses of all shapes and sizes must ensure they have policies in place governing the growing use of social media at work, according to a leading HR consultant.

A recent survey revealed that most people now use social media at work, either on computers or mobile phones - but also that many were found to be looking at personal interest sites instead of working, posting derogatory comments about managers and colleagues, and buying and selling online.

Alli Hooton, Managing Consultant at Gloucestershire-based 3103 HR Ltd., says the solution for employers is to draw up a workable policy document , in consultation with staff, spelling out the “do’s and don’ts” of social media.

“The explosion in social media has been of huge benefit to businesses in recent years, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin can be a great way of increasing business contacts, sharing knowledge, building your brand and finding new recruits,” she says.

“No employer would be greatly surprised to hear that his or her staff are prone to having the occasional grumble about work in the pub on a Friday night. But if derogatory or defamatory comments, or confidential information, appear on a social media site, the consequences can be far more serious.

“Whatever is posted is online forever and it can spread like wildfire. If sufficiently extreme or unusual, it could even attract the unwanted attentions of an investigative journalist.”

She says most employers would — rightly - be reluctant to impose an outright ban on social media, so they must draw up guidelines for staff which:

· set the boundaries of precisely what is, and what isn’t, acceptable activity — in short, anything which could damage colleagues, customers or the standing of the company as a whole.
· reiterate that access at work is a privilege, not a right, and one which can be withdrawn if there is any abuse.
· have a pop-up which appears when staff go online, asking them to read the company’s social media policy.
· ask employees to tick a box agreeing to terms and conditions around online usage, such as not being drawn into conversations about their employer, adding a company disclaimer to any individual posts, and not attaching their employer’s name to tweets or blogs.

“Many contracts of employment prohibit the disclosing of commercially sensitive information and bringing the employer into disrepute, but it is generally accepted that social media requires more specific measures that can be updated regularly without the need for a protracted consultation period," she added.

“As with most things involved in running a business, it’s about striking the right balance. While it is crucial to have proper safeguards in place, being over-zealous about social media use way can be time consuming and worse, it can cause ill feeling and damage staff morale.”

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