Make sure staff know what is and is not acceptable in the workplace via an agreed policy.
Just when you think you’ve managed to align your HR policies with the latest online developments, workers will discover some ingenious new way to scare the living daylights out of you.
Blogging has been the subject of much hand-wringing over the last year or so, with several high-profile dismissals bringing the matter to the attention of these pages and to the public at large. Today, most employers at least know what blogging is and that some of their workers may be doing it, even if they’re not quite on top of managing the potential risks.
Yet, with technology moving on at a rate of knots, it can be tricky for business to know where the latest web-related HR challenge is going to appear. It is unlikely the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service ever considered the potential ramifications of one of their firefighters climbing into a tumble-dryer, switching it on and posting the resulting video footage on a community video website.
This incident not only led to embarrassment but also to disciplinary action. So, what should employers do to protect their interests?
The first step is to define what the business wants to achieve. Is misuse of internal systems the sole concern, or is there a desire to limit the personal online activities of staff? While any prescriptive attempt to limit the out-of-hours activity of employees is likely to fail, workers must understand that their actions outside the office can still lead to disciplinary action.
Managing use of the company network can be achieved though an acceptable use policy. Such a policy would, among other provisions, confirm whether workers are permitted to access media distribution websites, such as YouTube, MySpace and Bebo.
E-breaks for staff
Another interesting tactic, recently adopted by Virgin Money, is to introduce time-limited ‘e-breaks’, during which staff are allowed to carry out personal online tasks. This could be combined with a ban on uploading video content in the workplace, if such activity could compromise security or expose trade secrets.
It is important when formulating a policy to ensure it is proportional to the risks. The posting of videos in itself is unlikely to cause great angst for employers, unless the clips are linked to conduct that is illegal or defamatory, or if confidential information is disclosed.
Employers should, however, be mindful of the problems caused by over-reaction to personal blogs, as while such blogs have a potentially global reach, their actual readership is often tiny.
As even the tightest, most carefully constructed policy is useless unless it actually works in practice, getting the input and buy-in of staff is another key step.
A novel way of doing this was adopted by the BBC, which created a ‘wiki’ site – along the lines of Wikipedia, the user-driven online encyclopaedia – that allows employees to easily add, remove and otherwise edit site content.
A draft set of guidelines was put on the site and moulded by staff into a workable final version, without so much as a meeting having to take place.
Businesses cannot ignore the ease with which individuals can now distribute their multimedia content to a global audience nor can they reasonably expect their employees to do so. Employers do, however, have a right to prevent abuse of office IT resources and to protect their reputation, security and trade secrets.
By clearly setting out the parameters of acceptable behaviour, in an agreed policy, businesses will be able to meet any challenges the internet can create.
Lindsey Cartwright, partner, employment team, Maclay Murray & Spens
- Decide what you want to achieve – policing of internal systems, or limiting the personal online activities of staff?
- If it is the former, amend your acceptable use policy to detail restrictions on sites, time, and activities.
- If it is the latter, amend disciplinary procedures and produce guidelines on acceptable actions.
- Involve employees in the process of producing policies or guidelines, perhaps through a ‘wiki’ site.
- Work closely with colleagues in IT.