Social media is the broad term given to describe the latest evolution of internet and web based communication platforms that enable users to rapidly connect and interact in a variety of different formats.

As employers, FE Colleges are not immune to the ramifications of employees using social media. Quite apart from social media now being used increasingly in recruitment of staff, colleges are also having to contend with dealing with those employees who use (or misuse) social media.

The advantages of social media are plentiful. It is a useful way for colleges to attract learners and demonstrate the college’s key strengths. It can also be used internally so that information and knowledge can be shared quickly.

However, the disadvantages should not be underestimated. Colleges could be held vicariously liable for discrimination and bullying where inappropriate comments are posted by employees or indeed learners. Crucially from a college’s perspective, their reputation could be seriously damaged internally as well as in the community they serve.

The headlines are all too commonplace as regards employees who are dismissed for making derogatory comments on Facebook or Twitter.

Colleges should be making it clear to all employees that social media, whilst beneficial, cannot be abused”

It is also noteworthy that tribunal bundles containing relevant documentation to a case will invariably have print outs from social networking sites and/or other communications as part of evidence to support a particular party’s case.

These cases highlight the growing use and issues associated with social media, so much so that ACAS has recently produced guidance on social networking for employers encouraging them to introduce policies on the use of social media at work.

If they have not already done so, colleges should be looking at implementing a social media policy that sets out clear parameters about permitted use during working hours. Colleges should be making it clear to all employees that social media, whilst beneficial, cannot be abused.

Employees should be restricted in referring to the college’s name on social media profiles and, where the college’s name is appropriate (for example, if a member of staff is on LinkedIn), employees should be given a clear reminder that there should be no derogatory comments about the college, its staff or learners.

Critically, employees should be reminded at all times that out of hours activities on social media websites could still link employees’ comments to those of their employer. To that end, colleges must take seriously anything that could bring the college into disrepute, regardless of the time when the communication is made.

If it all goes wrong and a member of staff breaches the college’s social media policy, colleges should implement their disciplinary procedures. This will include investigating the issue, informing the employee in writing and holding a hearing, if necessary.

Appropriate sanctions may include written warnings up to and including dismissal without notice or payment in lieu of notice.

Colleges should always offer a right of appeal against any disciplinary sanction given. Whilst abuse of social media may result in disciplinary action being taken, it should also be recognised that comments made by employees (or indeed learners in colleges) could be used to form the basis of a grievance. Colleges should therefore ensure that their grievance procedures are robust to deal with such complaints.

Matthew Kelly, partner at
Thomas Eggar LLP

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