Privacy at work

In today's connected world, HR needs to find a way to draw the line between an employee's personal and professional life to prevent possible complications

A recent web poll by Robert Walters showed that one in five Singapore employees does not see the need to maintain a professional image online. Such employees have no qualms posting questionable content on social media networks that may be acceptable for the individuals themselves, but companies are increasingly cracking down on online behaviour they feel is tarnishing their corporate image.

With the line between personal and professional life drawn so thin, it is difficult for companies to distinguish where the boundary actually lies. The consequences are dire on both ends of the spectrum – on one hand, the company’s reputation may get hurt if employees are careless in their postings on social media; on the other, the company may face a lawsuit from disgruntled ex-staff who feel that their privacy has been violated.

A recent case in Australia, where an employee was dismissed for making comments about his managers on his Facebook profile, made headlines. Glen Stutsel had been employed as a truck driver by logistics company Linfox, but was fired last year after management became aware of his online comments.

“(Employers) need to strike a balance between the legitimate concerns of the company and the privacy rights of individuals,” says Eric Roring Pesik, Associate General Counsel, Seagate Singapore. “This balance might be different depending on the level of the employees. For example, the personal behaviour of a member of the executive management team has a much greater impact on a company’s image than the behaviour of an ordinary worker.”

To negotiate the minefield of employee privacy, it is best for organisations to set out policies with clear, written guidelines of how employees may engage in social media. According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore, “It is recommended that both the employer and employee mutually agree and incorporate a clause regarding images on social networking sites as part of the terms and conditions of the employment contract, or the employer could include such requirements into the company’s HR policy and communicate them clearly to the employee.”

Lionel Tan, Partner, Rajah & Tann, says that communication matters. “The company may have to monitor the employee’s use of social media at times to ensure there is no policy breach that may damage the company’s reputation. However, the employees should be reassured that there is never any intention to knowingly breach any employee’s privacy for collateral purposes,” he explains.

Without clear guidelines in place, it may be difficult for companies to pursue disciplinary actions against staff or for companies to defend themselves if a discharged employee chooses to go to court. “If what the employee does online has no impact on the company, then matters are private affairs of which the company should reserve judgement,” says Tan. “However, if the employee is in a position of responsibility where he has to safeguard that image as a representative of the company, then inappropriate pictures or content posted on social networking sites, (content) that contradicts that image and paints him in a different light, may result in him being subject to disciplinary action.”

According to Pesik, it is “incredibly rare” that a company would be justified in firing employees for behaviour that might be considered inappropriate but otherwise perfectly legal, such as having pictures taken while drinking at a club. Therefore, it is on the onus of companies to have a clear, well-communicated social media policy that will protect the interests of both the firm and its employees.

Companies should also take steps to encourage staff to take charge of their image online as well. “Most tech-savvy professionals are aware of this and know that tweaking one’s privacy settings is extremely important in ensuring that private images and content remains within the confines of a friends-only setting,” advises Gwen Lim, manager at the HR division, Robert Walters Singapore.

While such steps are not fool-proof, experts say they matter in limiting the number of people who can access their content. When companies and employees work hand-in-hand to deal with the issue of employee privacy, there will be less opportunity for complications to happen.

“Define a clear social media policy right from the start. What’s important is to educate people on an ongoing basis and empower them to make decisions based on training provided,” says Aadil Bandukwala, Talent Acquisition Social Media Advisor, Dell. “Aside from that, what they do in their personal life belongs to them.”

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