Social networking via the internet is now an established phenomena but it can be a headache for employers. A number of them have blocked the use of Facebook and similar networking sites because of the loss of productivity which has been estimated as costing business £130 million a day. Many companies have warned employees that accessing a social networking site during working hours is a sackable offence.
However, some employers take a different view and consider these sites can provide a useful business networking tool and forum for ideas. This can blur the lines as to what is and what is not acceptable. It is therefore important for employers to give careful thought as to the consequences of encouraging this in the workplace.
A good example of why this is important is the recent case of Hays vs Ions. Ions was employed by Hays as a management consultant specialising in placing training and similar personnel for a broad range of professional, public-sector and commercial clients. According to Ions, Hays encouraged staff to become members of the professional networking site, LinkedIn. When Ions decided to leave Hays to set up a competing business, he took his email contacts with him. He argued that once the contacts that had been taken from Hays' confidential database had been uploaded, and an invitation to join his network through LinkedIn had been accepted, that contact information ceased to be confidential because it was accessible to a wider audience through his network. He therefore considered he was entitled to use these contacts in his new business.
This case was only an application for pre-action disclosure of documents by Hays and therefore not a conclusive decision but the Court decided that there were reasonable grounds for Hays considering that Ions had transferred confidential information to his LinkedIn account. This case has yet to go to a full hearing and there are a number of facts in dispute but what is interesting are the unintended consequences if employers encourage staff to use these social networking sites in carrying out of their jobs.
If an employer therefore wants to encourage employees to use social networking sites, thought should be given to the rules governing such use, who owns the information on the site and what happens at the end of employment.
Elizabeth Adams is partner, Employment Group, Beachcroft LLP.