FLAMING RETORT: Eleven UK government employees sacked over social media use at work!

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Social networks, Twitter

The UK's Guardian newspaper laid into the government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) yesterday with a story provocatively entitled Eleven work and pensions civil servants sacked for using Twitter or Facebook.

The left-leaning Grauniad even booms forth words from the right-leaning think tank Parliament Street, which thunders that "in a social media age, it beggars belief that employees are being banned from using sites like Twitter and Facebook in the workplace."

Phew!

Seems that Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Brace of Cross-Bench Jo'rnos scorn'd!

Parliament Street, by the way, also thinks that Latin and Greek should be taught in every school, partly on the grounds that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg regards Latin as one of the keys to his success.

And you have to admit, when it comes to social networking, Zuckerberg certainly venit, vidit, vincit.

So, where does your organisation sit on the social media fence? Do you ban it, or turn a blind eye, or tolerate it, or actively encourage it?

An outright ban certainly comes across as narrow-minded in any company that itself has an active presence in the social media scene.

If you're trying to persuade anyone and everyone outside the company to engage with you via sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it comes across as hypocritical if you expect your own staff to disengage from those sites entirely.

On the other hand, no company wants to see its own business discussed unofficially, probably inaccuarately, possibly inexpertly, and perhaps even recklessly, in the quasi-illiterate, carefree way that characterises many Twitter exchanges.

What could possibly go wrong? I've worked with that bloke for like, what, weeks, and I trust him like a brother, well, not *my* brother because he's on bail over that thing with his ex-gf's credit card, but maybe someone else's brother

One compromise made in some organisations is to divide the staff into two groups. They end up split into the haves and the have-nots. The former, who have been trained, or briefed, or are at least considered trusted, are allowed to "do" social media. The latter aren't allowed on sites like Twitter and Facebook at all.

If the Guardian has it right when it quotes the DWP as saying that social media sites are "completely restricted" for most of its workers, it sounds as though DWP has adopted just this sort of have-and-have-not division.

I'm not certain that this can ever work well. After all, in the developed world, many if not most of those who are have-nots at work are haves at home.

In fact, in 2013, most of them are, at least technically, haves whilst they are at work, because they probably have at their disposal some sort of mobile device - paid for out of their own after-tax income - that lets them jump online at will merely by taking a phone out of their pocket.

It's fanciful to assume that your staff will never mention work-related matters outside the office, and (with the exception of specialised professions such as law enforcement and the intelligence services) it is rarely necessary to prevent it from happening altogether.

There are almost always going to be some things that you wouldn't mind an employee mentioning to outsiders - at a weekend barbecue with friends, for example - and other things that they have an obvious obligation to keep to themselves. And what works at the barbecue can be made to work online.

So, I think you need to define a way of dividing social media access by behaviour, not by entitlement, so that staff are allowed to use social media sites at work (just as they do at home), but only in a way that keeps up respect for, and maintains the privacy of, business issues.

I know that is easier said than done - but it's not significantly more difficult than setting guidelines for the safe and secure use of communication technologies such as the telephone and email.

Where does that leave us with the DWP's workplace attitude to social media?

Fortunately, if you read the details in the Guardian's report on the DWP sackings, you'll notice that the eleven who lost their jobs weren't ejected at one stroke. The dismissals took place over the past four years.

116 staff members landed in some degree of hot water over social media usage during that time, of which 36 got a verbal warning, 35 a written warning, and 34 a final written warning (which seems to imply that they'd been in some sort of trouble before). Eleven, as the headline trumpets, got the sack.

Perhaps not as dramatic as the headline seemed to suggest on its own, especially for the largest government department in the UK, employing close to 100,000 people.

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7 Responses to FLAMING RETORT: Eleven UK government employees sacked over social media use at work!

  1. Helen · 564 days ago

    I've worked in large-organisation HR departments for years and I'm not at all surprised by these numbers. The problem isn't social media at all - that's a side issue. These are the kind of people who, if social media didn't exist, would be dismissed for the misuse of other company resources or for time-wasting.

    I would hazard a guess that most of the dismissals related to the use of social media as a source - finding distasteful material online and then spending half the day forwarding it to their friends; 'friending' borderline illegal campaign groups in company time; spending half the day trolling on comment columns, etc. Sometimes you become aware of a problem when an employee engages in a bizarre flame war with a customer, and the customer somehow finds out the employee's identity.

    Most of the people I've dismissed had already been repeatedly warned and instead used other peoples' logins to ignore their warnings; which of course compounded the problem.

    I say again - social media is not the problem. Breaching clearly laid-down rules of conduct in the workplace is the problem - and always will be.

  2. barry1936 · 564 days ago

    Back in the days when we used a telephone, private calls were banned both in & out without permission - and it was usually up to your immediate boss to decide what was important! The reason was very simple. You were paid to work for your employer and not spend their time on your personal affairs. So why should Social Media be any different? Stealing an employers time is no different to stealing their pens, paper, printer cartridges, usb sticks or even the odd laptop. Where do you draw the line?

  3. david · 564 days ago

    lets be honest most people are productiuve for a lot less than the 8 hrs of work they are paid for each day.
    No one knows the specifics here, but get on the high and mighty about "no time wasting at work" probably means that you need to get a life

  4. snert · 563 days ago

    If you're on the clock, working, then you'd best be working. Seriously, why are you doing what ever you do at your job? Because you get paid for doing just that - the job, Right? Not for posting the last time you farted on FarceBook or watching a vid somebody's latest stupidity on You Tube. Bandwidth costs. If you're paying for it, you call the shots.
    Socializing is cool, as long as you're doing the job. Using the Company's equipment for private benefit without prior permission can/will get you fired. The company's equipment IS NOT PRIVATE AND CAN (and probably will be) MONITORED. I know, they did it where I used to work - any and all computer use was monitored. And you signed a release stating you knew this and any violation of the agreement would result in getting your sorry butt canned. No hugs or kisses good-bye - FY.

  5. snert · 563 days ago

    I don't trust anybody that does not like cats. Which has nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

  6. raymond · 562 days ago

    I would say that no boss minds an occssional quick use of facebook or twitterbut I would suspect that these people were sacked for either excessive use or for posting offensive things.It is really about the amount of use and whether it affects your work.

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About the author

Paul Ducklin is a passionate security proselytiser. (That's like an evangelist, but more so!) He lives and breathes computer security, and would be happy for you to do so, too. Paul won the inaugural AusCERT Director's Award for Individual Excellence in Computer Security in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @duckblog