Employers need to provide clear guidance for staff regarding the use of social networking sites to avoid inappropriate relationships, harassment of staff and the potential for disclosure of confidential information, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has warned.
"Increasingly, employers are facing issues as a result of the use of social media," said Andy Jaeger, assistant director of professional and public communications at the NMC. "They need to be encouraging responsible use and when issues do arise they need to take them seriously."
The organisation suggests that companies set out clear policies for staff regarding the use of such sites, including advising employees to keep their personal and professional lives separate as far as possible, upholding the reputation of their employer and profession at all times, and ensuring that they protect their own privacy by using settings available on sites such as Facebook.
Employers should also ensure that line managers are familiar with policies and issues, and make sure they treat any complaints from online activity - such as cyber-bullying or the sharing of confidential information - in the same manner as they would in the real world.
"If someone is harassing or bullying a colleague, doing that online doesn't make it any less serious than if it was being done face-to-face," said Jaeger.
The issue was particularly important where staff were in public-facing roles such as the NHS or teaching, he added.
"We're starting to see a small number of cases coming through which directly involve the use of social networking sites and employers are increasingly raising those issues with us," he said.
One recent example involved a psychiatric nurse who was struck off the register after contacting a former patient through Facebook and developing a sexual relationship with her, resulting in the patient self-harming when it ended.
"Particularly with regard to nurses and midwives, there are issues around relationships with patients and patient confidentiality," said Jaeger.
"Informal relationships with patients online just aren't appropriate. Social networking has made all of us easier to find so sometimes it's about clearly and kindly drawing some boundaries."
A further risk was disgruntled employees posting negative comments about their employer. "Where organisations are going through significant change, the fallout can happen in all sorts of ways and some of that can be online," he said. "Again, it's about having clear policies and thinking through how you can deal with it and doing so proportionately."
But companies should not look to impose a blanket ban on the use of social media, he added.
For information on how to deal with an employee who uses social media to post negative comments about your organisation, view XpertHR's guide.