· 2 min read · Features

What does a good workplace social networking policy look like?

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Imagine the scene. You're wandering past a notice board when a photograph catches your eye. It's been scribbled on offensively, and insults written across it.

Then you realise it's not the only photo. There are hundreds. You are shocked. You take immediate and forceful action to discover the culprit, and start disciplinary procedures. But would you do the same if the photos had been posted, not on a noticeboard, but on Facebook?

I met a nurse earlier this year who told me of her frustration when senior staff refused to take an incident of online bullying and harassment seriously. In her case, offending photographs had been shared between work colleagues on Facebook, and when they were passed to her, she raised the alarm.

Despite providing evidence, it seemed nobody would take her seriously. It had only happened on Facebook, they said, and no real harm was done. Sadly, the nurse I met is not alone in her concern that managers and HR professionals alike do not take online problems as seriously as real-world events. In developing the Nursing and Midwifery Council's new advice for nurses and midwives on using social networking sites, I heard many similar stories and problems.

The advice we have issued provides nurses and midwives with some practical tips to keep them safe online, while ensuring they act within the NMC's code of conduct, and uphold the reputation of their profession. The advice highlights the importance of maintaining clear boundaries between personal and professional lives; not using social networking sites to pursue personal relationships with patients; avoiding discussing patients and colleagues online; and adjusting privacy settings to control what is being shared and with whom.

We estimate there are some 355,000 nurses and midwives using Facebook, and, as their regulator, we hope the advice we have issued will help keep them out of trouble when they go online. But whatever action they take individually, nurses and midwives need the support of their employers and managers to set clear and reasonable policies, and take proportionate action when things go wrong.

So what does a good social networking policy look like? Certainly, it should not include a blanket bans on nurses and midwives joining or using social networking sites. Even if such a ban could be imposed on workplace computer networks, personal computers and mobile devices offer easy access. Blanket bans are likely therefore to be both unenforceable and counter-productive, and do not encourage responsible use.

If you are developing a social networking policy, ensure that your managers, and those responsible for enforcing it, understand and apply it consistently, particularly if they are handling complaints. In some cases, where someone investigating a complaint has limited or no experience of using social networking sites, it may be appropriate to encourage them to join personally, so that they can understand better the situation they are examining.

But most importantly, take complaints about the use of social networking sites or other online activity as seriously as real-world events. Cyber-bullying for example, can be intrusive and distressing, and sharing confidential information online can be even more damaging than sharing it verbally. We have to deal with these issues in a proportionate and consistent way.

Since its launch, our social networking advice has been welcomed by nurses, midwives, managers and HR professionals alike. I hope that we see a positive impact of the advice as it's put into practice, but in the mean time, remember to take people seriously if they come to you with a problem about Facebook.

Andy Jaeger (pictured) is assistant director, professional and public communications at the Nursing and Midwifery Council and author of its social networking sites advice