It’s that time of year when we all reflect on the past 12 months and think about what we might want to change and improve. For HR professionals, the lessons can be significant; perhaps Bob in Accounts needs some urgent remedial guidance on what is and is not an appropriate Secret Santa gift? Or maybe it’s time to speak to Sandra in Marketing about suitable office dress? For almost all employees some timely guidance on blogging and social media is highly recommended, given that social media continues to be such fertile ground for Employment Tribunal litigation.  Even good old email (just so 2013) continues to throw up the odd “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-wrote-that”, leading almost inevitably, though belatedly, to “I-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-delete-that”.

With the ever-changing landscape of UK employment law and the continuing technological advances that make 24 hour communication not only possible, but expected, it is vital that your employees understand not only what is expected of them in this respect, both inside and outside of work, but also what will happen if they don’t comply.

The case of Justine Sacco just before Christmas highlighted that even senior employees in PR companies might not appreciate the impact an ill-advised Tweet might have. For reasons known only to Sacco, prior to boarding a flight to Africa she posted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”  (A friend is reported as saying that Sacco clearly “made a mistake”, as she was “still figuring out” Twitter. Unfortunately she was able to find the “post” button and as test messages go, if such it really was, it was clearly pretty unthinking anyway.)

No sooner had Sacco posted her Tweet and jumped on the plane than the Twittersphere picked up and ran (nay, sprinted) with the Tweet, resulting in her being both publicly pilloried and jobless by the time she landed a few hours later.

Sacco’s employers may have been able to address the matter quickly, but what about the impact this kind of comment can have on the business in the longer term? The internet has an incredibly long memory; simply asking for a post to be removed does not mean it is forever deleted from the minds of users and, more often than not, the more salacious posts will be found elsewhere anyway, having been re-Tweeted, copied and pasted on Facebook, or reported on various news sites.  Nothing is ever lost for good in cyberspace except, if you misuse it, your privacy, dignity and employment prospects.

The old adage “Prevention is better than cure” is never more appropriate than here, so be sure to implement a Social Media and Blogging Policy and ensure all staff are trained on it.

Such policies can run to many pages of explanation and examples, but since they can never anticipate every potential abuse, I quite like the shortest reported policy – “Be smart; don’t be stupid”.  Brilliant.  To put some flesh on those bare bones, we always advise employees debating whether something is appropriate to email/post/Tweet to consider “Would I be happy reading this out in court?”,  “Would I say this in front of my parents?”, “Would I say this to someone of a different race/sexuality/gender/age/religion [delete as appropriate]?” and “Would I like this to attract the attention of the Press?  If you are even asking yourself these questions, then the answer is likely to be “no”, in which case your finger needs to move away from the “post” button and towards the “backspace” button. Quickly.

For some further recommendations and safeguards on appropriate use of Twitter by your staff, see Patrick Thomas’ earlier blog post.