Acas has published a new guide to social networking in the workplace, which it says is the first in the UK. The employment body said the guide is aimed at helping businesses, staff and trade unions agree on how to handle employment issues related to the internet, blogs and social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Almost six out of 10 employees now use social media at work whether on computers or mobile phones, according to Acas figures. This can lead to problems with staff members wasting work time on personal webpages, posting derogatory comments about managers and colleagues, or buying and selling online.
Misuse of the internet and social media by employees is estimated to cost the UK economy up to £14bn a year, according to the guidance.
However the guide warns against "knee-jerk reactions" and urges employers to consider the "moral intensity" of any offensive content published before proceeding with disciplinary action.
Acas recommends that employers consult staff and trade unions before publishing their own policies, and should also make the consequences of breaching any policy clear in employment contracts.
It stresses that the employer, staff and unions agree to protect employees' freedom of speech and so that staff and managers feel protected against online bullying and damage to the company's reputation.
It also urges employers to keep the policy up to date to reflect the speed of change in the technology and its uses.
John Taylor, Acas chief executive, stressed that employees' conduct online should be subject to the same standards as their conduct in the workplace.
"Employees should assume that everything they say on the internet could be made public, and should think whether they want their colleagues or boss to read it. They might not mean it, but what they post could end up being seen by billions of people worldwide," he said.
However he stressed that any monitoring of online activity should be proportionate. "A manager wouldn't follow an employee down the pub to check on what he or she said to friends about their day at work. Just because they can do something like this online doesn't mean they should," he said.
The guide also warns employers about the risks of searching for information about potential employees online and using any personal information found during the recruitment process.
Managers risk being sued for discrimination "if they refuse to interview someone as a result of a judgement they made based on a social networking profile", it says.
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