The Perils of Social Networking Sites

Wednesday 18 March 2009 by

Social networking sites are part of life for many young people in the UK and throughout the world. But could they cause trouble in the workplace? Chris Morvan spoke to Jersey advocate Helen Ruelle, who has been researching the subject.

The huge increase in recent years in the use of social networking sites - Facebook, Bebo and a host of others - has spread from the home to the workplace - creating concerns for users and employers alike. The potential implications in terms of privacy, discrimination and other issues have led a Jersey lawyer to launch a study of the subject. Helen Ruelle, senior associate with Mourant, explained the reasons.

'It's something I've considered to discuss with some of our clients in terms of "Have you thought about the broader implications of social networking?"  We try to be proactive with our clients and if there's an issue that we think could be important, we'll research it and maybe set up seminars and workshops.'
For many employers, the first stage could be understanding exactly what social networking sites are all about and what people do on them. It is, after all, something that is widespread among younger people, while those over, say, 30 are less likely to be involved.

For those who have no understanding of the subject, this is how it works: users write a 'profile' in which they include personal details about themselves, and perhaps add some photographs and news about what they are currently doing or have been doing. There are restrictions designed to reserve certain information for contacts who are invited to be 'friends', but Helen's research shows these to be far from foolproof. 'People put information on these sites and they think no one can see it unless they have given permission, but that's not strictly true. People can get into it - and do. And that's where it starts to be more problematic. It is even being used as a recruitment tool. Some employers will do a Facebook search to see what a potential employee might be up to. But there are huge implications there, such as how do you know it's true?'

The problem in that respect is that, just as we should all be wary of accepting information found on the internet as correct, because it could be either unintentionally or deliberately wrong, there is the possibility that a profile may not have been created by the real person at all. It could be a spoof, designed to cause mischief or something more sinister.

'You could go and create "me" and say anything you wanted about me,' Helen speculated. 'Or the profile you're looking at might be that of a different person with the same name. Identity theft, as we all know, is becoming increasingly common. So am I saying that, as an employer, you should not use these sites? No. What I am saying is that you should be extremely careful how you use that information.'

So if an employer did look at somebody's Facebook profile, for instance, and discover that he or she had, perhaps, had a sex-change operation or had a particular - and irrelevant - criminal conviction, any decision not to employ them on that basis would be subject to the discrimination and other laws applicable in that jurisdiction.

Above all, Helen urges caution.
'As a reputable employer, do you really want to rely on this, rather than getting your own official verification? It is potentially a useful tool but also potentially a nightmare.'

And it's not just the employer who needs to be careful. Social networking site users talk about their life, which almost inevitably involves discussing what they do at work. And that can open them up to all sorts of charges from disgruntled employers. Helen named three examples: 'Breach of confidentiality, breach of restrictive covenants and even dilution of the brand. So there is a tendency now,' she continued, 'for employers to be more controlling about when and how people access these sites, and even what to do when it's outside working hours. But most aren't going so far as to ban their use at work completely. I think often there is a balance to be struck. If people are working very long hours, and it's not a nine-to-five job, for instance, employers tend to like to give their employees some flexibility. You might want to have a break and go onto Facebook at seven o'clock in the evening or during your lunch hour, so there is a reluctance on the part of employers to completely ban it. That said, there is a growing tendency for employers to monitor internet use more, and I'd say that is quite a recent thing. Some businesses are saying "Okay, here are the rules, and if you can't play within them, we're going to ban it." But it's far from universal. Of the firms that I deal with, I don't think many of them ban it outright. They're more likely to say "The internet is primarily a business tool. You can use it during your lunch hour and before and after working hours." And they tend to have generic rules about "excessive or inappropriate use". But in my experience it is not the inappropriateness that's an issue, but the amount of time. Most people are just booking flights, doing a bit of online shopping, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, there are some people who still think it appropriate to look at unmentionable things on their work computer.' Internet monitoring is actually quite a simple matter. As long as you've got the contractual right to do it and you're in accordance with the interception and other relevant laws, then off you go. The problem with social networking sites is that it spreads beyond the work environment. Companies are becoming more aware of these sites, because the people who are spending excessive amounts of time on the internet at work tend to be on those sites. Employers want to know what they can do, how they can deal with it. And sometimes it's not a response to a situation, but a question of how they can draft their policies and procedures to make sure that if it does happen, they can deal with it appropriately.'

Helen's advice to employees is to keep off such sites at work, and when they use them in their own time they should restrict the information they give out to purely personal matters and not discuss work at all. 'They should not be discussing work colleagues, and certainly not in a derogatory or discriminatory way.'

On a similar note, there is the issue of someone being bullied by a colleague on a social networking site outside working hours, in the same way as one hears of children being hounded by text by schoolmates.

Even removing the work element, Helen advises people to be cautious. 'You should be very careful what details you put on the site. If you don't want something becoming common knowledge, don't put it on there. People can and do manipulate what they find on there. There was a man in the UK recently who was awarded £22,000 in damages against a former friend for breach of privacy and libel. As for employers, I think they should make it very clear what their policy is regarding internet use in general and social networking sites in particular. As an employer you are entitled to monitor, but you have to have said you are doing it and why. You have to be clear whether you are just monitoring the amount of time or if you're monitoring which sites people are looking at. It's the same with emails: are you monitoring traffic or content? There should be no surprise to employees. And as a business you have to think "If I'm monitoring email and website content, what am I doing with that information?"'