Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs suffered from a couple of high-profile social media-related incidents but authorised the roll-out of blanket internet access to all of its staff for the first time.

The findings of the consultation, published in the form of a Workings and social networking report, are available on the Acas website and were based on a series of interviews between representatives of the conciliation service and the government department. These included an HR advisor for HMRC, its head of digital strategy and a trade union representative who is responsible for data security issues.

According to the report, only half of all staff at HMRC currently have online access in the workplace, although plans are currently underway to broaden this out to everyone “as part of the process of centralising the HR functions of civil service departments”. The department already has an acceptable use policy, which stipulates that access to certain websites is not permitted.

As an organisation that holds huge amounts of sensitive data, HMRC felt it had to control the types of sites that employees are allowed to access from its IT systems in order to maintain “extremely tight data security procedures”. “We’re part of the government and have to be very secure. We don’t like people using sites that might bring in viruses or malware,” the HMRC HR adviser told Acas.

HMRC is also currently in the process of developing a digital engagement strategy, which includes social media and “how the press office might use social networking sites in order to communicate with the public”.

Ground rules

But explained the department’s head of digital strategy: “We realised that one of the things that you need to do first is to set the ground rules in terms of staff engagement with social media. Once you have that in place, you can do other things.”

For example, if the aim is to have members of the press office use Twitter, there needs to be some guidance about who can use it and in what context. “We have to draw a line between the sort of corporate presence and the boundaries governing people’s general use of Twitter,” he said.

The catalyst for HMRC creating its digital engagement strategy, meanwhile, was the decision to roll out blanket internet access to all staff, on top of “a couple of high-profile incidents picked up by the media of HMRC employees using social networking sites”.

The HR adviser explained: “We had concerns within HR about social media and how staff were using it. We’ve had misconduct cases involving social media, although we’ve handled it quite well. We decided in HR that we needed to do something.”.

HMRC is developing the usage policy in conjunction with the trade unions and is also making internal postings on bulletin boards for employees “to see and comment upon”. The aim here is to help ensure that workers “can have an input into the policy, which in turn will increase overall acceptance and awareness”.

Ultimately, however, the policy urges them to conduct themselves in the online world in the same way that they would offline. But it also includes the reminder that: “Everything you share on a social networking site could potentially end up in the worldwide public domain and be seen or used by someone you did not intend, even if it appears to be ‘private’ or is on a closed profile or group.”

HMRC’s basic guidelines are:

* Employees need to exercise common sense and remember that “what they write on social networking sites is essentially in the public domain, even if they have privacy settings or material is posted on a closed profile or group”
* Do not disclose personal details or whereabouts
* Choose online ‘friends’ carefully
* Ensure that privacy settings remain unchanged
* Use of the HMRC logo “is not permitted”

“We try to avoid telling people how to behave privately, but our guidance does go into private use of social media, from our department’s point of view,” HMRC’s HR adviser concluded.