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

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.”


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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