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Spreading the festive smear: why managers should take social media seriously

Christmas office party revellers: don’t let any of these people update their Facebook right now. AAP

As Christmas party season approaches, many will begin turning their attention to the office party. While some may focus on concerns about the venue and cost-cutting measures (in the current economic climate), perhaps a more worthy concern is whether we can any longer assume that what happens at the Christmas party will stay at the Christmas party.

The heady mixture of alcohol, Christmas and impending summer holidays can cause people at the end of a tough year to let down their guard. This has been one of the notorious aspects of the office end-of-year party for decades. An ingredient that hasn’t been around for that long, however, is mobile technology.

With social media and recording devices in most people’s pockets these days, people’s behaviour at a party can now be posted for a global audience in the blink of an eye. An organisation’s reputation can be tarnished and people’s careers damaged by spur-of-the-moment recording and posting of office party activities to the online community through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

A key issue is how proactive organisations are in terms of setting boundaries for social media use in and around work-related activities. Some of the questions managers need to ask themselves as the festive season approaches are:

  • Does the organisation have policies for the use of social media in the workplace and work situations?

  • Does the organisation have policies for posting work-related comments on social media?

  • Are these policies clearly articulated to the workforce?

  • Has appropriate training and education been associated with the development of these policies?

If, as a manager, you answer “no” to any of the above questions then it is worth considering taking some time to ensure your workforce understands these issues before the festive season arrives. If your answer is “no” to all the above, don’t panic – you still have time to address them.

It is important for both organisations and employees to know the boundaries. Increasingly, cases are coming before tribunals regarding the use and misuse of social media in the workplace.

Recently, Fair Work Australia (FWA) heard the first case in Australia where an employee had been dismissed for making comments regarding her employment on a social media site. Around Christmas the employee posted comments on her Facebook page that read:

“Xmas ‘bonus’ along side a job warning, followed by no holiday pay!!!! Whoooooo! The hairdressing industry rocks man!!! AWESOME!!!

The posting was accessible to the employee’s Facebook friends and remained on the site through December and January, after which it was removed.

Although the FWA commissioner found in favour of the employee because the salon was not identified, she noted that the comments had been disrespectful and reflected negatively on her employer. The commissioner said:

"Posting comments about employers on a website (Facebook) that can be seen by an uncontrollable number of people is no longer a private matter but a public comment.”

It is well accepted that behaviour outside working hours may have an impact on employment. A Facebook posting, while initially undertaken outside working hours, does not stop once work commences. It remains on Facebook until removal for anyone with permission to access on the site.

The commissioner’s comments make it clear that these public expressions of dissatisfaction damage the trust and confidence implicit in the employment relationship. Although the Facebook comments did not constitute grounds for dismissal in this case, they could potentially cause a break-down in the employment relationship.

Managers and human resource managers alike must comprehend these issues and provide policies and make employees aware of the implications of discussing work and work colleagues within their online community.

The combination of age-old celebrations and the new information age can be a dangerous mix. The key point is there is still time to address these issues before the party season gets into full swing.

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