Social media is a major communications channel in the 21st century organisation. How should managers use it to maximise staff engagement and innovative capability while minimising lost productivity?
International banker and philanthropist Agha Hasan Abedi once stated that “the conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.” Which sounds very sensible, until you realise that Agha Hasan Abedi was living in an age where computers were the size of warehouses and office communications involved a foreman shouting out his office window. In short, he didn’t have to battle to get his employees attention before then settling into the task of developing them through work. Times have changed as have the challenges facing twenty-first century managers.
The most fundamental of these changes is in the area of communications. Not just in the instruments we use to communicate, but the way in which faceless and far-reaching communication tools have changed the tone and depth of conversation. An email can immediately transmit a message across an organisation, while social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can spread messages to an ever expanding network of people. This of course brings great opportunities to business, but with opportunities come challenges. And for managers, the question is how to manage these messages and grow both your people and the business. So what are some of the major challenges in the contemporary communications environment and how should managers address them?
Communicating with your staff using social media
A new mantra has started to develop around social media – “social media is publishing”. If you are happy for the world to know about it, publish it on social media. If it is intended to be a private conversation between a manager and an employee, then it is best to have the conversation face to face. This rule should extend beyond social media to include email and text in the publishing definition as well. While a manager may be happy to issue work directions to an employee by text message, it’s definitely not the medium to use to discipline or even dismiss an employee, as discovered by Modestie Fashion in Sydney. In an unfair dismissal hearing, Fair Work Australia found that dismissal by SMS was harsh and unreasonable and showed the employer’s “lack of courage” (Sedina Sokolovic v Modestie Fashion Australia Pty Ltd (ABN: 671444920838)  FWA 3063 (18 May 2011)). The employer was ordered to pay $10 000. In another matter before Fair Work Australia it was found that sacking an employee by text message would be a factor indicative of unfairness (Phuong Truong v Mekong Australia Pty Ltd T/A Findon Rightprice Pharmacy  FWA 2466 (26 March 2010)).
These cases illustrate the importance of speaking to employees face-to-face for issues involving discipline or dismissal. This is because natural justice demands that a person accused of wrong-doing should be allowed the opportunity to respond to the allegations put to them. This is not possible with either SMS texting or email.
But there are times when communicating with staff by social media is not only acceptable but also shows good faith by an employer. When Geelong-based fashion chain Cotton On was found by the Fair Work Ombudsman to have underpaid 3289 staff by a total $278 0 it agreed as part of an enforceable undertaking to post an apology to its entire staff on its popular Facebook page. The page was accessible to both employees and customers.Cotton On received considerable goodwill from both staff and customers for its willingness to provide a public mea culpa.
Social media – business tool or social distraction?
It seems a weekly occurrence that newspapers or magazines produce a report that shows how much time and money workplaces lose on employees’ imprudent use of social networking and communication tools such as email and SMS text. But for every one of these articles there is another article outlining how openness to social media in the workplace is essential for recruiting and retaining young staff and is an essential tool in promoting and growing a business. Both approaches may be right but the challenge for managers is to keep employees focused on the task at hand rather than the device in their hand.
In many ways social media is just another in a long line of workplace distractions – chatty co-workers personal telephone calls or long smoko breaks. If staff are demotivated then no matter how you treat the distraction such as by blocking access to social network sites this merely masks the symptom and doesn’t fix the problem. That is not to say that there shouldn’t be clear and concise parameters around how employees use and engage with communication tools and social media. Each workplace should have a very clear policy that sets limits on ‘reasonable use’ of internet based facilities that outlines what sort of communications are and are not acceptable and reinforces the employee’s contractual requirement to keep the employer’s confidential information confidential. But a good policy is only half of the answer – the policy must be well policed and consistently enforced – and these policies should sit within a focus on workplace culture and staff engagement.
In a Fair Work Australia decision handed down in May this year an employee has succeeded in claiming his dismissal for excessive social media use was unfair. In a letter of termination the employer wrote to the employee and stated: “Tonight I have gone through your records and found that for the last three months alone you have recorded over 3000 transactions on a chat line during work time … In effect you have been accepting wages and not undertaking the work but instead engaging in personal activities.” (Richard O’Connor v Outdoor Creations Pty Ltd  FWA 3081 (24 May 2011)). In spite of the suggestion that the employee’s use of social media had impacted productivity and his work performance was problematic Fair Work Australia found that the manager had never identified the employee’s personal internet use as an issue in his two years of employment and had produced no evidence to show that the use had impacted on the employee’s work. Had the employer instituted and policed a clear and concise communications policy within a context of active performance review and staff engagement the issue may have been resolved much earlier.
Employees behaving badly
Now more than ever the actions of employees have the ability to profoundly affect the reputation of a business. This is quite simply because depending on the media the actions of your employees can be seen by a much larger audience. What may have once been a gripe about an employer over coffee with friends can with social media become a public comment accessible by an uncontrollable number of people. Regardless of whether the posts are made outside of work hours or only viewed by a limited number of people if the comments cause damage to the employer or breach an express term of an employment contract then they could be grounds for a termination of employment.
Misbehaviour on social media is not of itself reason to dismiss an employee. Under the Fair Work Act 2009 an employer must have a valid reason for dismissing an employee. If the employee posts something negative about an employer on a Facebook page that is seen by 50 or so people many of whom are not clients of the employer then it’s unlikely that the employees actions will have caused the employer a detriment – as such dismissal would be unfair. This was discussed in the case of a hairdresser who after receiving a smaller than expected Christmas bonus wrote on her Facebook page: “Xmas ‘bonus’ along side a job warning followed by no holiday pay!!! Whoooooo! The Hairdressing Industry rocks man!!! AWESOME!!!” (Miss Sally-Anne Fitzgerald v Dianna Smith T/A Escape Hair Design  FWA 7358 (24 September 2010)). While Fair Work Australia found that the comment amounted to a “foolish outburst” it had not damaged the business and fell short of providing a valid reason for dismissal. The Tribunal also took into account that the employer had not been named in the post and that there was no evidence that the 5 to 10 clients who were friends with the worker on Facebook had read the comment.
Fair Work Australia has shown that it will uphold dismissals based on an employee’s use of social media where that use is of itself grounds for termination. A dismissal was recently upheld where an employee criticised her employer’s handling of a sexual discrimination complaint the employee had made about her manager. The employee posted her criticisms on a blog on her My Space page which was publicly accessible. The employer successfully argued that the blog was an “attack on the integrity of the management” and given the employee’s refusal to remove the blog dismissal was not unreasonable.
Similarly a recent decision by Coles to terminate eight employees who had engaged in ‘planking’ and had published the photos on-line illustrates how it is the action not the medium that is at issue. ‘Planking’ involves a person lying prostate on an item usually in a precarious position. While the employees argued that the dismissals were harsh as they did not breach any policy Coles had on social media Coles disagreed saying the dismissals related solely to workplace safety which the ‘planking’ activity breached. In the published photos the employees were shown on Coles property acting contrary to health and safety policy.In short abuse of social media will not of itself give grounds to terminate an employee’s employment unless there is a clear policy in place to deal with social media use.
In the case of bullying harassment and discrimination managers should also ensure that sound policies and workplace culture exist to avoid liability in cases of inappropriate use of social media. Manages are required to provide a healthy safe work environment to investigate staff concerns properly formally and promptly.
About the Author
Joseph Kelly has had extensive experience in commercial litigation and workplace law, having advised employers and employees on all issues relating to industrial relations and employment law. Joseph has advised industry bodies, unions, employers and government and continues to run training and information seminars for legal practitioners. Joseph is currently the Principal of Kelly Workplace Lawyers. [www.kwlawyers.com.au]
This advice and comments are provided as general information and should not be construed as legal advice. Separate legal advice relating to the interpretation and implication of this article for your individual circumstances should be obtained.