Safe use of social media: a Cambridgeshire County Branch guide

Social media has now become the normal route for us to communicate with each other. We may phone, but we text and Facebook more (other social media outlets exist as well). Social media has become such an integral part of our lives; it is almost forgotten as soon as the send button has been pressed. If only that was the case.

The Branch is seeing a rise in the use Social Media cases, this is probably reflected nationally, but I have no figures to rely on. However the BBC recently released an article which appears to show its prevalence. A Freedom of Information request showed that in Wales, ‘three council workers were sacked and others were warned over 21 cases of misusing social media last year’.

‘They included making racially offensive remarks, leaking a confidential memo and posting defamatory comments’. (1) In 2014, again in Wales the DVLA alone recorded 26 cases of Social media miss-use.

One reason for the increase could be more awareness from management regarding Social media, meaning that what you post is more like to be seen by your IT savvy manager of today. Or, like other policies such as sickness absence and capability, its noted increase is due to it being used to ‘exit’ employees as an alternative to ‘reorganising’ them out, it is after all, more cost effective, quicker and there is no need to wait for another reorganisation.

One thing is clear, is that we all need to be vigilant as to what information we put out there, what we are doing in any picture we are tagged on, and what our employers policy states. Unlike a conversation, photos and the written word can’t be denied.

Policy documents that cover Social media use may not be restricted to only Social media. It will most likely spill over into your Code of Conduct policy, Internet use policy and ‘Behaviours’ you are expected to uphold. The pitfalls are many and falling into one is quite easy. The following advice is drawn from several sources, all referenced for further reading.

How can it harm my career?

The first thing to remember in this debate is, nothing only concerns you. You have now become a representative of your employer 24/7. You may work for them for 40 hours per week, or on a zero hours contract, but the hold on you does not let go when you clock off. It remains with you in the form of policy documents, you must continue to ‘represent your organisation in a professional way and do nothing which could bring the company into disrepute’.

Keziah Featherstone, deputy head at The Coleshill School, Warwickshire is an experienced teacher, and has this to say: “I've never searched for a potential employee before interviewing but I know some places do. We have accessed Facebook material, and other social network data on a couple of occasions, though, when we have had safeguarding issues raised. Her advice is to those working in education is, ‘remember the kids will Google/Bing/Facebook/MySpace you and if there is something there that might even be a little bit embarrassing then parents will see it too – then the head teacher.(2) I’m sure ‘our’ managers would be no different.

The same advice applies within Cambridgeshire County, if it’s out there it will get back to your manager. The consequence could be anything from a management advice, to dismissal. This Branch has experience of both these, and all possibilities in between.  For those on performance pay, a disciplinary will end your prospect of being selected for a well-earned pay rise. It may, harm your chances of promotion, be used in the criteria for redundancy selection, may harm a future reference, harm relationships with colleagues and perhaps your home life. Being unemployed impacts on your family life as well.

How to ‘Keep yourself Safe’

You could close down all your social networking sites. The Branch recognises that this is not going to happen, until after you have been disciplined. So to help prevent you sitting in front of your manager, explaining why you wrote what you did. Here are some ideas on what you can do, they may seem obvious but it is surprising just how many people don’t follow them.

-       Set your security settings to high. Only allow access to those on your friends list.

-       Reduce the number of friends you have. Keep only those you are in regular contact with, or those you trust. For example your close family and your UNISON representative.

-       Be careful not to get tagged on any photo’s you wouldn’t show your boss yourself. Ask for its removal, highlighting the potential danger a photo of that nature poses to you. Spread the advice to friends so they are more aware of what they post.

-       Update yourself on your policy documents. Make sure you do not fall foul of them.

-       Do not use abusive or threatening language (3) and be careful with the words you use. Others may interpret your words in a way you did not mean. The resulting investigation may take weeks, if not months and lead onto other issues. Such as anxiety, stress, work performance and sickness.  And if they do want you out, they will raise 'a loss of trust and confidence' in you.  Leaving you with a very difficult fight to get your job back.

The ‘Big dog’ site linked below (4) offers advice on immature personal email addresses and links to other sites, as further areas that you should consider. A recent H&S seminar I attended, legal advice was that stating these views were personal and do not represent my employer, was not a practical defence. Whatever you write, tweet is your responsibility, even a re tweet becomes yours, as if you wrote it yourself. You are as guilty as the original author in the eyes of the law.  Be careful what you write.

Further reading of the references quoted above can be found at:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-32826584
  2. http://newteachers.tes.co.uk/content/dont-let-facebook-harm-your-career
  3. http://www.atl.org.uk/Images/adv42-social-networking-sites-nov-13.pdf
  4. http://www.bigdog.co.uk/articles/career-advice/skills/how-social-networking-can-hurt-or-help-your-job-hunting
  5. https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2014/08/TowebInternet-e-mail-and-social-networking-factsheet2.pdf

In Solidarity