Employment law - The right time to tweet

In this age of social media, a clear practice policy is a must

SOCIAL media has become a firm fixture in recent years for both individuals and businesses alike, but such fast technological advancement is not without risk for medical and dental practices.

A huge number of people are active on social media now as part of their everyday lives, with recent figures revealing a staggering 24 million UK users logging on to Facebook each day, while one in four people (15 million) have Twitter accounts.

It is therefore hardly surprising that there are implications for practices regarding staff and their use of social media. At MDDUS, we often deal with calls from practices asking for advice on issues relating to social media– from how to deal with staff using smartphones or handheld devices during work time to Facebook posts containing derogatory comments about the practice, staff or patients.

Employees can be dismissed or disciplined for their online activities if their actions bring the practice into disrepute. Risks include a lack of productivity during working time and possible confidentiality and data protection breaches.

So what can a practice do to protect itself and ensure employees are fully aware of the risks and expectations when using social media?

Practices should have a social media policy within their IT policy which clearly states when and how often employees can access certain sites – if at all. This will make the process of taking disciplinary action easier if the need arises.

All new employees should receive a copy of the practice’s social media policy while, for current staff, team meetings should be used to revisit policies on occasion as this can help raise awareness and educate staff on the pitfalls of social media misuse.

As part of your social media and IT policy, it should be made clear what is and what is not acceptable in and outside the workplace. For example, staff must not use blogs or personal websites to disparage the practice or anyone working there and an employee should not post anything critical or negative about the practice or anyone associated with it.

If an employee has had a bad day or a run-in with their manager, they should think twice about posting this on any social media website. A well-reported example of this came a few years ago when a group of dental nurses caught the attention of the General Dental Council for creating a Facebook group called “I’m a dental nurse and I hate patients” filled with insulting comments. Likewise, consider the possible implications before posting photos from a work night out and don’t tag colleagues in pictures without their permission.

It might also be an idea to have a policy where practice managers and dentists/ doctors are not “friends” with employees on Facebook.

A social media policy should cover both business and personal use as, even from the comfort of their own home, employees should be mindful of what they post online. Even with the proper privacy settings in place, anything posted online may end up being distributed further than intended, with the risk of messages or photos being shared by friends of friends. And remember that even deleted posts are often still visible via internet searches long after they have been removed from your social media pages.

Many people these days have a smartphone or tablet, so even where access to social media sites is restricted on work computers, you should ensure the policy covers internet use on employees’ personal devices. It is one thing to be able to monitor and restrict access to the internet and social media sites on work computers, but more difficult to control when accessed via an employee’s phone.

You should have a relevant policy that states when the internet can be accessed for personal use and when mobile phones can be used – whether that is not at all, during breaks or only in case of emergencies. You may wish to state that phones should be set to ‘silent’ to minimise disruption to the practice.

Social media can also have a business use within the practice and can be a helpful resource for sending out messages or information notices to patients. Practices who operate a Twitter/Facebook account should consider delegating a suitably trained member of staff to post relevant news and updates for patients. This can be useful in many ways, such as publicising health information, highlighting practice holiday closures or for situations where, for example, the practice phone lines are down.

Detailed policies usually only have to be enforced where employees cease to use common sense in their approach to what is and isn’t acceptable. However, there are risks to consider with the use of social media and a clear policy can help protect the practice and ensure employees understand what is expected of them.

Janice Sibbald is an employment law adviser at MDDUS