Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and blogs: Managing social media at work

A recent article in the Globe and Mail described how Canadians spend on average approximately 43.5 hours a month on the Web, which is, almost twice the worldwide average of 23.1 hours. With numbers this high, hospitals have to wonder: how much of that time surfing the Web is done during working hours and/or posting comments relating to the workplace?

In addition to lost time and productivity that employees may be spending mindlessly checking their Facebook page (or ‘creeping’ their friends pictures), the dramatic increase in social computing has mounted a number of challenges for hospitals. As more and more employees chose to create or participate in blogs, wikis, online social networks and other forms of online publishing or discussion boards, hospitals are confronted with unique disciplinary challenges for online conduct both in and outside the workplace.

For example, in CAW-Canada, loc 127 and Chatham-Kent (municipality), a personal caregiver at a home for the aged created a blog to communicate with three other colleagues no longer working at the same site.  She intended to create a private website to host her blog, however the website she actually created was public and could be viewed by anyone. The nurse (who had eight years seniority) was terminated for breach of confidentiality and insubordination after her employer discovered that the blog included pictures and information about the residents, as well as inappropriate comments about them and senior staff at the home. The termination was upheld at arbitration.

With examples like this and increasing use of social media, what is a hospital to do?

In general, what employees do on their own time is their affair and employers must respect the legal rights of their employees to create or participate in a blog, wiki or online social network.  However, activities in and outside of work that affect job performance, the reputation of the hospital and the performance of others and/or the rights and privacy of others are the proper focus of employment policies and can be potential grounds for discipline, up to and including termination of employment.

Hospitals should also keep in mind that determining the appropriate degree of discipline warranted for an employee’s inappropriate online conduct, requires an assessment of the seriousness of the threat which the misconduct poses to the hospital. This is determined by looking at the nature of the allegations (e.g. whether they are defamatory), the danger of the message (i.e. potential damage), the employee’s state of mind (i.e. whether it was deliberate and premeditated or a ‘momentary and emotional aberration’); the employee’s employment record (e.g. whether the employee has a long and discipline-free record of service), the appropriateness or history of using corrective discipline, and other relevant circumstances.

Similarly, employees should always consider whether, if discovered by a fellow employee or the employer itself, any element of their participation in an online social medium could potentially affect their employment relationship, or be interpreted as a potential risk to the work environment.  Although it may be an obvious point, it should not be forgotten that “[t]he internet is a unique universe to which anyone with a computer has access and entry, which obviously includes customers, suppliers, the public, employees and potential employees.” In other words, an employee should be extremely cautious about writing anything online which would be problematic if seen by an employer or the general public, because one can never be sure of who the information will reach.

Finally, in order to set clear boundaries, it is the responsibility of the hospital to ensure that the rules governing the responsible use of technology and its code of conduct are clear and widely understood.  The content of a responsible technology use policy should reflect the tension between an individual’s right to free speech with their duties and responsibilities as employees.

Generally, a code of conduct will describe behaviour that the hospital believes to be in contravention of the policy and should outline guidelines for the responsible use of blogging and online social networking.

Technological developments and expanding online platforms are fundamentally changing how individuals engage with their colleagues, employer, and the world at large. When approaching these changes in an employment context, the objective is to achieve responsible involvement and participation with respect to networking and social-based applications. Clear and specific appropriate use of technology policies which reflect lessons learned from past cases as well as professional codes of conduct will go a long way to ensuring hospitals have a positive experience with online social media.