We wouldn’t expect to screen private phone calls so why is monitoring the social media accounts of employees any different?

In 2021, we found the most common type of adverse content identified on social media profiles for UK employees to be inappropriate content (46.7%), sexually explicit (26.5%) and hate and discriminatory behaviour (13.6%).

Clearly, it is an important question to consider. Whilst a phone call is generally between two people, social media affords us an audience, often, of thousands. The big question as an employer is whether the private views of your employees are actually any of your business? Thanks to the stratospheric rise in social media use globally, it’s never been easier to make our views known. So, what does this mean for you – and what can you do when the views of your employees clearly aren’t good for business?

Where does the line get drawn between freedom of speech and protecting organisational culture and brand? Georgina Wilson outlines the basics.


What are the benefits of social media?

It’s worth mentioning that employing people who are proactive on social media can do a lot of good for your business. Having employees that are passionate about what your organisation is doing, and having them shout about it online, speaks for itself.

Proudly sharing our work life online is the modern-day equivalent of telling our friends about it at the pub. The added benefit is that there are more people likely to be listening than could ever fit around a table at the nearest local.

This ‘word of mouth’ element has always been supportive in filling vacancies, building brand awareness and positioning businesses as an ‘employer of choice’. It’s also an approach which works well online, and is why many choose to operate a company Facebook or Twitter profile.

The downside, of course, is that when a colleague comes out with something distasteful or controversial, it can be detrimental not only to them but to your organisation too.

Conversely, employers are increasingly coming under scrutiny for their willingness to promote diversity and inclusion at all levels and the need to remain impartial is also very much there.


What role does freedom of expression play?

As employers, there are a few questions we need to be asking ourselves within the modern world.

Have you decided where the line for you between freedom of expression and recklessness lies? Do your employees know this? Do you have a social media policy in place, shared during the induction process? Do your employees identify themselves as working for you online, and do you encourage them to do so?

There have always been clear ideas in place as to what is and isn’t acceptable conduct as an employee after all, so why not extend this to outline your expectations as an employer with regards to social media too?

Did TV mogul Danny Baker have a clear set of social media guidelines issued to him before he chose to issue his infamous tweet following the birth of the Duchess of Sussex’s baby, which ultimately cost him his job at the BBC? Was actress Roseanne Barr made privy to anything similar before she lost her own show following a slew of racially offensive tweets in 2018?

If the guidelines are there from the start, there can be little to no discussion to follow should a person’s social media activity clearly be seen to fall outside of them.


The use of social media could protect your business from reputational risk

Conversely, social media can also help you find out whether your employees are conducting themselves in a way that is appropriate to your organisation too. Some of our own work in social media has led us to discover an employee operating as a sex worker on the side, for example. Dependent on the nature of your business or the service you provide, such information – if publicly available – could present a reputational risk for your organisation.

On this note, it’s helpful for employers to be aware they can review any publicly available social media profiles of prospective employees during the hiring process. And, it’s ethically sound to do so.

Historically, employers have been wary of undertaking social media searches so as not to stray too far into the private lives of their employees, or risk exposing themselves to accusations of discrimination.

However, advances in machine learning technologies mean the landscape is changing and such checks are increasingly becoming a routine part of the pre-employment screening process since 2015. Searches focus on key risk indicators such as violence, explicit and inappropriate content, discrimination and hate speech and illegal activities.

However, information relating to protected characteristics – like religion, sexuality, gender – stay protected and are neither reviewed, or reported.


Getting the balance right

So, there are a number of things we can do as employers to mitigate the risks posed to us reputationally by the rise in social media. The key – as with most things in business – is to get the balance right. It’s important individuals are made aware they’ll be subject to social media searches in advance of them being conducted. It’s also important any results are discussed with the individual. In many instances, we find employers are both willing and able to work with their employees to address any concerns, and to educate them as to how best to manage their online presence responsibly – adopting good security and privacy controls.

For any employer, the line between appearing too dictatorial and acting like you simply don’t care is always going to be there. Making sure your core values are made clear from the outset, alongside your expectations of employees in adhering to them, is a step every employer needs to be taking in the modern world, if they haven’t done so already.


Georgina Wilson is Director of Strategy and Planning and a long-standing member of the Senior Management team at Vero Screening.