Social media and the workplace

Policies necessary to avoid reputational damage 


The use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media is growing at an exponential rate and is here to stay. With this explosive growth social media has become increasingly relevant in the workplace too. 

There are many positives associated with social media for employers, including improved internal communication, company branding, increased public visibility, enhanced ability to reach customers, employee motivation and reward, and more.  

Social media however is a minefield for both employers and employees.  How do employers manage the use of social media to ensure the best business benefit and protect their business at the same time? How do employees ensure that a “harmlesspost whilst at home does not lead to the termination of their employment due to misconduct? 

It is important to understand that in terms of the South African Constitution, no right is absolute, and the right to freedom of expression must be balanced against the right of others to dignity, freedom and equity. In the South African context, we must also take into consideration the interplay between the use of social media and legislation such as the Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (4 of 200) and Employment Equity Act (55 of 1998). 

The onslaught of social media creates various risks for both employers and employees. 

Employers can have their reputation irreparably damaged by the actions of an employee on social media. A company’s brand can be destroyed through inappropriate postings by an employee These postings can be malicious or merely negligent without thought of the consequences to one’s employer. 

Confidentiality breaches, whether intentional or negligent, have increased enormously with the use of social media. 

Cyberbullying and harassment in the workplace can lead to cases of constructive dismissal, where sometimes inadvertently, management are aware of or associated with the bullying or harassment. 

Lost productivity or time wasting associated with the use of social media during working hours is a common concern. Constant access to social media during working hours can be distracting, and exposing the company to viruses, scams and hacking that originate on social media, is a serious business risk.  There is the concern too, as an employer, of being vicariously liable for your employee’s action where they have posted defamatory comments.  

These are but a few of the concerns. 

 Employees can likewise be at risk of falling foul of their employers without even realising it. Employees may believe that they can post whatever they want outside of the workplace and working hours. Employees may post after hours thinking that they are ‘safe’ as they are posting in their personal capacity and time, but this could actually constitute misconduct resulting in dismissal.  

It is imperative for employer to have a clearly communicated social media policy to reduce legal issues and public relations nightmares, but equally to ensure that employees are aware of what is acceptable social media usage. 

 Social media policies should: 

  • Give employers the right to monitor information posted by employees on social media, even after hours; 
  • Make a clear distinction between business and private use; 
  • Make it clear that company networks, computer systems and social media platforms are for business use only; 
  • Define irresponsible conduct on social media and the consequences thereof; 
  • Make it clear that the posting of discriminatory, derogatory or offensive material (whether generally or about the employer or fellow employees) will constitute gross misconduct; 
  • Clearly state that personal use of social media whilst at work amounts to time wastage; and 
  • Make it clear that irresponsible posts can damage the reputation or brand of the employer; and can breach data protection, privacy and defamation laws.  

Source: Nicola Bouch is a labour law consultant and lecturer for Institute of Estate Agents (IEASA)

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