Engage brain before operating keypad is the best advice

IT WAS recently reported that an award-winning police community support officer had been sacked after he described his beat in inflammatory language on Facebook. He also complained about having to wear a "stupid" stab-proof vest because it was not necessary in a rural community.

The result? He was hauled before a disciplinary hearing and sacked from his job with Warwickshire Police. His employer also criticised him for joining a Facebook group which spoke out against Islamic extremists and accused him of being drunk on duty after he posted a message on his profile saying he was enjoying a "glass of Scotch" in bed.

The news comes at a time when Germany is considering a law that would ban employers looking for information about candidates for job interviews on social networking sites such as Facebook.

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The issue was further propelled into the limelight when Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, issued a stark warning over the amount of personal data people leave on the internet, going so far as to suggest than many young people may be forced to change their name in future in order to escape their cyber past.

Employers have been quoted saying that "the future is already here". Many employers will now routinely Google candidates and review personal profiles on LinkedIn, with others perhaps also checking postings on Facebook.

The research helps them make informed decisions about prospective candidates, and to ensure the business is not being misrepresented on the internet by current employees.

Most employers are perfectly reasonable, and are not expecting their staff to behave like saints, but they equally realise that employees regularly making status updates throughout the working day are hardly going to make committed employees.

It is clear then that we have moved into a different employment landscape where companies are increasingly checking out candidates' internet activity as part of the recruitment process, and keeping an eye on existing staff.

The key issue from an employment law perspective is: "How far is an employer entitled to use information found on the internet when dealing with disciplinary issues for existing employees or recruiting prospective employees? Is the privacy of the candidate or employee being invaded?"

Conversely, should an employee expect to be protected from such scrutiny if they happily publish personal details and information on social networking sites and other blogs, chatrooms or online forums?

And to what extent are such sites to blame for not having adequate privacy settings or having settings that can all too easily be overcome?

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As we head towards the Christmas holiday period, it is timely to reflect on the new wave of social networking and how it might impact upon businesses and employment contracts, not least because the holiday period will be a popular time for online discussions, forums and conversations.

From an employer's perspective, by abiding with five key guidelines the business can ensure that it is protecting itself from unwanted internet postings and activity, whilst at the same time avoiding costly and time-consuming employment disputes.

These are: make sure your internet and e-mail policy is up-to-date; explain clearly to employees what is considered to be "acceptable use" of their internet access from their place of work; make your employees fully aware of your policy and procedure for monitoring their access to the internet and their e-mail traffic on their work PCs; be aware of employees' right to privacy and how far that protects them from what they will consider to be "snooping" by their employer; and ensure that your disciplinary policy is up-to-date and fully takes account of the impact that social networking sites, blogs, chatrooms and other online forums have had - and advise employees of how adverse postings will be dealt with.

And from an employee perspective, the watchword has to be: "consider what you are about to say before you say it", or perhaps more appropriately, "engage the brain before operating the keypad".

l Alan Thomson is chairman of McClure Naismith and head of the employment law practice.