Are Social Networking Sites a Liability at Work?

Last Updated Sep 19, 2008 11:48 AM EDT

When social networking sites first launched, most employers quickly blocked access to them at work, arguing that it was a blatant demonstration of time-wasting.

Attitudes are changing, with companies either conceding that access to social networking sites is a necessary evil or, for the more enlightened, a positive benefit for the business.
But the case of Matthew Firsht earlier this year was a reminder of the legal minefield employers may be straying into. Firsht's case, outlined at Workplace Law (free registration required), was the first libel and privacy case involving Facebook to reach trial and resulted in Firsht and his business, Applause Store Productions, being awarded £22,000 for breach of privacy and libel as a result of a fake Facebook profile.

Firsht, whose company supplies audiences for reality TV shows such as "Big Brother" and "The X Factor", discovered someone had set up a bogus Facebook profile for him, including a photograph and a mix of true and false information on his political and religious beliefs and his sexual orientation.

They'd also added a "Has Matthew Firsht lied to you?" group, which made defamatory claims about Firsht and his company's reliability when it came to paying debts.

The profile was traced back to Grant Raphael, an old acquaintance of Firsht with whom he'd fallen out. Although Raphael claimed he wasn't responsible, he was ordered to pay £22,000 to Firsht and his company, as well as an interim £30,000 in indemnity costs.

Raphael was found to have set up the fake profile at home, but transfer this to a workplace and you could find yourself at the wrong end of a libel case.

At the very least, employers could be called upon to demonstrate they neither knew about nor authorised the publication of private or defamatory content via their company network.

How to respond
It makes sense to have pre-existing internet policies on use of social networking sites.

Have a clear outline of how you expect employees to behave online and what conduct is deemed unacceptable, with trigger points that will prompt further investigation.

According to employment lawyers at Bond Pearce, workplace surveillance is on the rise as a result of social networking activity. But employees should be informed that their email and internet use may be monitored.

Bond Pearce also suggests blocking access to blogs and social networking sites. But this seems drastic -- they can be a useful business tool and an outright ban might put off talented people who consider the internet their most valuable networking tool. Not to be too Pollyanna, but a little trust and a clear internet policy should be enough, shouldn't it?

What do you think -- do you know your company's policy on internet use? What do you think of internet surveillance at work?

(Photo by Dyanna, CC2.0 )