Social Media in the Workplace

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 edition of the HRPA London and District Digest. (See page 10 of this pdf copy.)

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest – to name a few – permeate our lives. As we spend a majority of our day at the workplace, most of us can’t help but use social media sites while at work.

The rise in social media’s prevalence brings opportunities and challenges for employers and employees alike. Despite the doom and gloom we often hear, social media should not be shunned or feared. A happy medium can be reached.

There are two fundamental issues for social media in the workplace. The first is how to use it to effectively promote business. The second is how to discourage employees from spending excessive amounts of time on their own social media, and from saying things that don’t sit well with employers.

We are still feeling our way around what control and recourse an employer actually has over employee social media use, especially when it is on the employee’s account, and on the employee’s time. Internet tools and social media increasingly blur how one’s personal and work life overlap.

Employers struggle with the extent to which they may be prejudiced by what employees say on social media.

Should employers just ignore things they don’t like? What legal rights do employers have over actions employees consider personal? Employers should be careful not to push back too hard, because situations can play out badly for the employer in the court of public opinion.

An outright ban of social media use in the workplace is not the answer. Depending on the nature of the business, it may be beneficial to allow employees to use it. And an employer’s attempts to ban it or control access from company systems will make employees simply pull out their phones.

The better approach is to put guide-lines in place and educate employees on acceptable behaviour. This is not to say that employee use of social media carries no risk. It is not unusual for people to say things on social media that they would never do in a letter or email.

For example, a 2009 survey of United States employees indicated that 74 per cent agreed that it would be easy to damage an employer’s reputation via social media. Despite this, 27 per cent of those employees said they do not consider the ethical consequences of posting comments, photos or videos; 37 per cent rarely or never consider what their boss would think; and 34 per cent rarely or never consider what their customers would think. 15 per cent agreed that if their employer did something they did not agree with they would comment about it online.


  • violation of workplace harassment laws and policies,
  • messages inconsistent with the employer’s corporate image,
  • inappropriate use of employer resources,
  • defamation,
  • copyright violations,
  • privacy breaches, and
  • security breaches.

While one can argue that existing rules and common sense should be sufficient to cover an employee’s use of blogs and social media, it doesn’t seem to work that way in practice. After all, people sometimes tend to use new tools without a lot of thought about what they are doing, or whether they are doing something that they shouldn’t do.

Many employers have implemented social media policies for their employees. In essence, a social media policy describes acceptable behaviour. It will remind employees what is appropriate, and what is not. The goal is to foster safer behaviour, and to set a standard against which behaviour can be judged

A social media policy can stand on its own, or be incorporated into a wider, technology-use policy that covers the appropriate use of technology in general.

If you are not sure where to start, or what issues should be addressed, visit This online service (created by the author and rTraction) allows you to answer questions based on your situation and generates a draft policy customized to your business.

Sochi Olympics – Social Media for Personal Use Only

Today’s Slaw post:

The limitations and restrictions regarding social media use during the 2014 Winter Olympics Games continue to be controversial.  While the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) has eased up on their social media restrictions over the years, the IOC guidelines are fairly similar to the guidelines provided for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

(So no apparent extra control over social media as compared to prior Olympics – unlike allegations that participants and athletes will face the most invasive and massive surveillance ever, including monitoring of all communications, and allegations that it is the most corrupt Olympics in history. )

Take a look at the IOC guidelines for participants.

The IOC states that it: “Actively encourages and supports athletes and other accredited persons at the Olympic Games to take part in social media and to post, blog and tweet their experiences.”

At first glance the IOC, and in turn the Canadian Olympic Committee which follows the IOC guidelines, support the use of social media.  However the guidelines state that neither an athlete nor an accredited person can act as a journalist during the games, unless they are at games as an official journalist.

The guidelines make it clear that they cannot make any commercial use of social media, images or video taken at the games.

Nor can they use professional equipment to record images or video, which includes a ban on the use of tripods and monopods.  While they are allowed to post photographs they take at Olympic venues on social media, any video must be for personal use only and is not to be posted on social media.

Even accredited print journalists are prohibited from using professional video equipment and posting video.

Spectators are subject to similar restrictions as athletes.  The 23 page Ticketing Terms and Conditions (pdf) state:

Still images taken by spectator may be shared privately and are exclusively for personal, non-commercial purposes. Video recording can be made only with the use of domestic handheld cameras.  Images, videos and sound recordings of the Games taken by a spectator cannot be used for any purpose other than for private, personal, archival, non-commercial purposes i.e the Spectator may not license, broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the internet more generally, and may not exploit images, video and/or sound recordings for commercial purposes under any circumstances, whether on the internet or otherwise, or make them available to third parties.

The hype of the Olympic Games, these limitations, and the controversy surrounding social media use in the past (two athletes were expelled from the 2012 London Games for social media faux pas) will no doubt add to various controversial aspects of the games this February.

Social Media – the same thing only different

Todays Slaw post:

Two articles I noticed this morning emphasize that while social media can bring its own set of legal issues, sometimes its use can have the same consequences as any other form of publication.

The first is a CBC news report that a man has been charged with criminal harassment for his tweets.  He was charged a couple of years ago for derogatory and threatening messages.  The case is now at trial.

The second is a post at about a decision regarding an employment non-competition clause.  It was alleged that the defendant had contacted customers in violation of confidentiality obligations.  The court found no liability in this instance, and mentioned in passing that “the information was all publicly available and obtained from such sources as social media websites.”  One question that raises surrounds LinkedIn connections and facebook friends.  If the employee in question, or indeed other employees, have people who work at their employer’s customers as connections, does that take away from any otherwise confidential aspect of the employer’s customer list?

Web site comments – useful or just for trolls?

Today’s Slaw post:

There has been some controversy lately over comments on web sites.  Far too often comments are toxic, bitter, uninformed, and irrelevant.  Some popular bloggers such as Seth Godin simply turn the comment function off. Popular Science has just announced they are shutting off comments because they felt that “trolls and spambots” in their comments have overwhelmed intellectual debate. Some people have been critical of Popular Science’s decision.

At the same time, YouTube is about to make some changes to try to float the most relevant comments to the top, and push the nasty stuff to the bottom.  This Washington Post article discusses both the YouTube and Popular Science developments.

Slaw seems to attract high quality comments.  Simon tells me he simply trashes the very few toxic comments that Slaw receives.

What do readers think?  It is easy for sites that don’t get large numbers of comments to moderate and simply trash the nasty stuff.  For sites that by their nature attract large amounts of comments, do those comments add anything?  Are comments something worth keeping and trying to manage, or is it better just to not bother and shut the feature off?

Be conscious of what you post

For the London Free Press – Sept 25 2013 – Read this at LFPress .com

Most of us use social media — but if we’re not careful, its use can come back to haunt us when applying for jobs. It’s a point that anyone going back to school should be aware of.

What we post on social media can both help and hurt us when it comes to our careers.

A recent Forbes article talked about surveys of business hiring practices using social media. Those surveys were consistent with other surveys over the last few years that show it’s common for businesses to search the Internet and social media to find information about job candidates.

The good news is that one’s online presence can reinforce a resume, and show things like creativity and communications skills. But poor choices about what we post on social media can hurt more than politicians. It can affect students when they enter the workforce, and could mean the difference between getting and not getting a job. And in today’s tough job market, especially for recent grads, that is a risk worth avoiding.

A significant percentage of employers have decided not to hire prospective employees based on what they found about candidates online. Reasons include provocative or inappropriate photos or information posted on an applicant’s social- media profile, evidence of drinking and drug use, discriminatory comments and poor communication skills such as bad grammar and spelling.

Other faux pas are negative comments about employers, co-workers or customers; groups the person belongs to; lifestyle concerns and discovering the person lied on their resume.

Some of these are legitimate reasons for not hiring, some are not. Employers may be making some of these decisions in violation of discrimination and hiring laws. But for the most part, one would never know this is the reason they didn’t get an interview, or if they got an interview, why they didn’t get the job.

Students in particular need to consider that what they say and post on social media is not just being judged by their friends. Comments or photos that may seem amusing to one’s peers may leave a totally different impression on a prospective employer. The chances of being rejected for what we place online may matter less over time as people who grow up using social media start making more hiring decisions. But for now, a social- media presence that shows negative qualities in the eyes of someone looking to hire might just guarantee that you don’t even get an interview.

So think about what you post from the perspective of an employer, not your friends. Resist the urge to post drunken photos, or comments that show any kind of intolerance.

Pay attention to privacy settings and lock down social- media profiles so the entire world can’t see what you post.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time” is never a good defence.

More to Facebook than cat videos

For the London Free Press – August 26, 2013 – Read this at LFPress .com

Vision Critical has published “From Social to Sale,” an article with tips for businesses on how to use social media to boost sales. The report is drawn from online surveys conducted over 17 months in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. The report sheds light on what they call “social purchases.”

If you thought Facebook or Twitter was just an outlet for young people to post cat videos and inspirational quotes, you’d be wrong. Business can and should utilize social media to their advantage.

Not convinced? Think about this statistic from the report — almost one in three Facebook users have bought something after sharing, liking or commenting on it on Facebook.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Despite what we may think of the prevalence of online shopping, people are just as likely to make a purchase in store as they are to make an online purchase after liking or sharing the item on Facebook or Pinterest. So bricks and mortar stores can use social media to generate sales.
  • Almost half, about 43%, of Twitter users are 35-54 years old. Most of their purchases are tech-related. Twitter users seem to be of a different breed than the other two social media networks they looked at in the surveys. Unlike Facebook and Pinterest, Twitter uses are predominantly male, ages 35-54. It is the only social media outlet to boast a majority of tech-related sales and most Twitter related purchases occur on a mobile phone. On the other hand, Pinterest and Facebook’s sales come from a variety of different areas, including health and beauty and food and drink, yet very few purchases are made on a mobile phone.
  • Half of all social media related purchasing takes place within one week of sharing or favouriting the ultimately purchased item. This puts extra emphasis on a business’s efforts to sell its product. The first 24 hours are crucial to driving home a sale. For example, if someone “likes” a handbag on Facebook and if, within 24 hours, they receive a coupon code for that same handbag, they are much more likely to make that purchase. Businesses must act quickly to translate that ‘like’ into a purchase.

In order to inspire the coveted “spontaneous purchase,” the article suggests the best approach is to first spark interest in a product and get the customer to like or share an item. Then keep them interested with a reminder e-mail or a coupon.

The article shows that a business must know their consumers’ interests and demographic in order to move certain products. For example, if a business sells tech-related products exclusively, it might be more effective to simply focus on their Twitter customers. On the other hand, a company selling arts and crafts may want to focus on their Pinterest following.

Social Media & Public Opinion

Today’s Slaw post:

Social media is often touted as an important influencer on public opinion and political causes.  The Pew Research Centre just released an interesting survey called  Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion.

From the report:

At times the Twitter conversation is more liberal than survey responses, while at other times it is more conservative. Often it is the overall negativity that stands out. Much of the difference may have to do with both the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter as well as who among that slice chose to take part in any one conversation.

So why is the twitter conversation often inconsistent?  The report cites a number of reasons.

  • Those who get news on twitter – and particularly those who tweet news – are very different demographically from the public
  • The overall reach of twitter is modest – just 13% of adults said they ever use Twitter
  • Twitter users are considerably younger than the general public
  • The twitter audience is broader than the sample of a traditional national survey. People under 18 participate in twitter, while national surveys are limited to adults 18 and older. Similarly, twitter conversations also may include those living anywhere in the world.
  • Twitter users who choose to share their views on events vary with the topics in the news. Those who tweeted about the California same-sex marriage ruling were likely not the same group as those who tweeted about Obama’s inaugural or Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan.

Social media in general, and twitter in particular definitely influence public opinion and decision makers.  But on any given topic it can’t be relied upon as a reflection of public opinion.


HMV’s twitter debacle – don’t let it happen to you

HMV recently suffered embarrassment when an employee live tweeted as employees (including the person tweeting) were let go as part of a downsizing – using an official HMV twitter account.

See these reports by Fast Company and Hootsuite for more details and good tips on lessons learned. 

The bottom line is that corporate social media is a valuable asset that needs to be kept under control.  That’s not to say that each tweet requires committee approval. But businesses need to control employee access to corporate social media accounts so they don’t get hijacked.

For example, when people cease to be employees for any reason – whether they quit, are laid off, or fired – their access to corporate social media accounts should be suspended immediately, just like their access to corporate email and other systems is suspended.

Sharing private information brings legal issues with it

For the London Free Press – February 4, 2013

Read this at

Social media has opened the floodgates for the public dissemination of information about our private lives. Websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest provide an unprecedented ability to share our thoughts, photographs, activities, interests and relationship status with thousands of users around the world.

This sharing brings legal issues with it when unintended users are able to access one’s apparent “private” information.

Recent Ontario court decisions illustrate the uncertain state of the law as to whether social media content should be available as evidence in legal proceedings.

In the case of Stewart v. Kempster, the plaintiff was in a car crash that she claimed caused significant and permanent physical injuries. The plaintiff alleged her enjoyment of life had decreased greatly since the accident.

The plaintiff had regularly posted photographs on Facebook for her friends and family to see. The defendant wanted those photographs admitted as evidence in the trial to rebut the plaintiff’s claim that the crash reduced her activities. Although the plaintiff had an expectation that the Facebook photographs would not be seen by unintended viewers, the court had to consider whether the interests of justice outweighed such privacy interests.

The court refused to order production of the plaintiff’s Facebook photographs. It reasoned that the plaintiff did not have any photographs that were publicly accessible, did not intend to rely on any photographs to demonstrate her pre-collision health, and had only allowed 139 “friends” (out of approximately one billion Facebook users) to access the photographs. Before deciding that, the court reviewed the photographs to determine whether they were even relevant.

In making its decision, the court referred to an earlier decision in Murphy v. Perger where the court did order a plaintiff’s Facebook photos to be produced. The plaintiff in Murphy had also been involved in a car crash and claimed she suffered significant reductions to her enjoyment of life. The court considered the privacy interests involved and ultimately ordered production of the photographs for several reasons:

The plaintiff had posted photographs on the publicly accessible portion of her Facebook account that led the court to infer that similar photographs would be posted on the private portion of her account.

The plaintiff relied on photographs taken prior to the crash to demonstrate the impact of the crash on her prior lifestyle. It would therefore have been unfairly prejudicial to not show photographs depicting her post-collision condition.

The plaintiff didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in her photographs because she permitted 366 people to access her private content and allowed public access to other photographs.

These decisions show that the law evolves to address new technologies. Social media sites allow users to set security settings, but this does not automatically ensure that “private” content will be forever sealed away.

Social media users should take a moment to think before they post because they may run the risk of exposing their private lives to the public spotlight — or at the very least to someone on the opposite side of a lawsuit.


Facebook Graph Search

Today’s Slaw post:

Facebook just announced a new search tool called Graph Search that is now in beta for a limited number of users.  It allows users to search based on information about their friends.  A search, for example, for a restaurant will return results based on the likes and interests of the searcher’s friends.

It seems that Facebook is respecting user privacy settings, and basing the search only on what users have chosen to make public.  But then again consent is all about context, and users may not have thought about such a feature when considering their privacy settings.

Facebook’s announcement has a section on privacy.  If you want more detail CNET has a good article talking about things that the search will look at (such as shared data from apps and tagged photos) and things that we should look at to make sure we are still comfortable with our settings in light of the search tool.