Social media is an inevitable part of our personal and professional lives, with people using various platforms to communicate and share information. There is no denying the power of social media and the impact it has on business. However, in a time where technology is part of our day-to-day lives, the frequency and immediacy with which information travels and is received can quickly cause public outrage, workplace disharmony and damage to a brand.
The use of social media is increasingly conflating work life and private life. In particular, employees are casual about connecting with clients and colleagues on an array of social media platforms. Once they have done so, they have access to information which is often very personal. Although social media is an untapped resource of business and marketing for companies, employees are the face and voice of a company. Their comments and conduct on social media will inevitably be associated with that company, affecting the company’s reputation either positively or negatively. Moreover, from an employer’s perspective, the employment relationship can be affected by various factors including risks to reputation, defamation, vicarious liability and the disclosure of confidential information.
For example, employees will often post about their political beliefs or even go as far as making racial or sexist comments in their social media posts. Given the climate in which we currently live, an employer should not condone sexual and / or racist comments, especially if one is able to link the individual making the comment to his or her employer. It would be incumbent upon the employer to discipline such transgressors for their misconduct, which may ultimately result in dismissal.
Additionally, it is often found that groups of employees or teams within a company form messaging groups intended for business purposes. However, over time, as boundaries are blurred, these groups become a platform where inappropriate jokes, often of a sexual nature, are shared. If these are found to be inappropriate or offensive to a particular person or group of persons, this can have devastating effects for the employee who sent the message and even for those who might have commented on the message and may as a result be dismissed.
Because social media can impact on issues of fundamental rights such as the right to privacy and the right to freedom of association, employers are placed in a difficult position when it comes to regulating the way in which their employees use social media. Whilst the rights to privacy and freedom of expression are enshrined in our Constitution, it is important to understand that these are not absolute rights and can be limited. Employees do not have carte blanche to comment and post with impunity and employers are well within their rights to regulate social media insofar as it could affect the workplace or their business activities.
Social media use is growing rapidly around the world and it is necessary for employers to manage its use in the workplace. It is important for companies to develop social media policies and instill appropriate social media culture within their workplaces. Furthermore, employees need to be educated on the implications of their conduct on social media, as they may not understand how their actions may negatively affect them and their employers. The social media policy is a document designed to educate and assist employees to make responsible choices about the use of social media insofar as it affects the workplace. It is designed to provide practical, reasonable and enforceable guidelines to employees on the use of social media. The policy should educate employees about the use of social media and its impact. Most importantly, it must include in clear and unequivocal terms, the consequences of non-compliance. In this way, expectations and boundaries are set, and are easier to maintain in future.
Megan has an LLB and was admitted in 2013 after having completed her articles at Fluxmans. She practiced at Fluxmans for another 5 years, specialising in employment law, before moving to Cape Town. Megan joined Caveat in 2020, specialising in employment law work.
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