Your practice may be right up to date with the latest technology, but if you and your employees are embracing social media, make sure you have a legal framework in place to protect your business in the event of any misuse. Amanda Pillinger explains…
There’s been a vast increase in the use of social media and the internet over recent years. While employees often have their own social media profiles, many dental practices are now seeing the benefits of promoting their business through social media and creating online profiles for their practices.
Some are using the internet to remind patients of their appointments, book new appointments and promote the work carried out at the practice. Networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be attractive, relatively cheap marketing options. Employees are therefore becoming more used to accessing social media and the internet while at work, which means the distinction between professional and personal activity is becoming increasingly blurred.
Proper use of social media and the internet can be hugely beneficial to a practice, however there are potential legal dangers that businesses also need to be aware
Social media is increasingly being used to advertise positions, but how many practices now search social media sites and the internet before selecting a candidate? Great care should be taken as a candidate could make a claim for discrimination if they are not offered a position due to information discovered about them online.
While this might include evidence of inappropriate conduct, a candidate could allege that the actual reason they were not offered the position was due to their age, sex or other protected characteristic that became apparent during an online search.
Practices should consider what screening is acceptable and many set out a distinction between professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and personal sites such as Facebook when determining what information should be accessed during the recruitment process. In any event, employers should validate any information relied on in the recruitment process.
The confidential information in the possession of a dental practice extends beyond personal information relating to patients. It often includes business plans, marketing plans and also lists of patients and suppliers. Clearly a practice will want to protect its confidential information from inappropriate use by employees both during and after employment of an individual. As such, it may be appropriate to consider restricting employees from personally linking up with patients and suppliers during their employment, or alternatively stating that the employee must remove any such links upon termination of their employment.
Many employers have sought to take disciplinary action against employees making inappropriate comments online about their employers or about clients or patients. As well as breaching a duty of confidentiality, such comments can have a devastating effect on the reputation of a practice. However, in a number of cases, where an employee has been dismissed as a result of their conduct, tribunals have found that the employee was unfairly dismissed, given that there was no policy setting out the limits and restrictions of social media use.
Many businesses refuse to believe that cyber bullying takes place in the workplace. However, we have seen a steady increase in the number of cases referring to cyber bullying. It’s vital that practices protect themselves as far as possible from liability for such conduct.
Legislation provides that an employer can be vicariously liable for discriminatory acts of their employees. This means that where an employee makes discriminatory comments about another employee, the employer can be liable for such comments, even if they are made outside the workplace. Although the liability arises if the comments are made ‘in the course of employment’ the courts have attached a wide interpretation to that statement. To avoid liability, an employer will therefore need to protect themselves and establish that they have taken all reasonably practicable steps to prevent the discriminatory conduct.
Brand control and defamation
Employees who state their place of employment on social media sites or online are effectively promoting their employer’s brand and their employer. While this may be a positive promotion that results in an increase of new enquiries, it could also quickly become damaging in the event that negative or derogatory comments are made.
Issues to consider
It’s worth taking some time to work out what policies are needed in your practice:
- What, if any, usage of the internet and social media while at work will be acceptable at your practice? In the event that the practice uses social media to promote the business and to contact clients, it will not be possible to impose an outright ban or block access to sites. This doesn’t solve the issue of usage outside and with the increased use of smart phones, employees are able to access such sites while at work anyway
- How will the practice monitor the use of social media and the internet?
- Do existing policies or contracts of employment adequately address the protection of confidential information or do they need to be updated?
- Is the practice happy for employees to state the identity of their employer on social networking sites?
- Does the practice wish to be able to take disciplinary action for inappropriate use of social media or the internet?
- Does the practice have other policies in place, such as an equal opportunities policy and antibullying and harassment policy?
Social media and internet usage policy
Once your practice has considered these issues, you should draft a social media and internet usage policy that includes confirmation of the following:
- What access is permitted to the internet and social media sites at work – with consideration for access necessary to promote the business
- Any monitoring that will be carried out by the practice
- The acceptable personal and business use of the internet and emails during working hours
- That any anti-bullying or harassment policy and equal opportunities policy applies to the use of social media and the internet
- That inappropriate conduct online, whether during or out of working hours, will result in disciplinary action
- Any permitted usage of the internet for recruitment purposes
- The employee’s duty in relation to the use of confidential information and trade secrets
- That employees should not make derogatory comments online about the practice, work colleagues, patients or suppliers at any time
- That any comment made by employees online that could be associated with the practice should contain a disclaimer stating that the views expressed are not necessarily the views of the practice
Being aware of the pitfalls of social media and taking steps to prevent its misuse can undoubtedly prevent unnecessary legal action further down the line. Social media law is just one of the many topics that payment plan specialists such as Denplan can provide through its Tailor-Made Training Events. Denplan also offer preferential rates on a variety of products and services with a range of third parties, including Thomas Guise Solicitors, so it’s worth asking what your provider can offer you.
This article was first published in May 2014.