Social media can kill…

I recently spoke at a couple of CIPD branch meetings in Hatfield and Milton Keynes on the subject of Social Engagement and Collaboration. You can access my slides here if you would like to see them.

As the middle of three speakers and in the company of an unexpectedly positive HR audience (!) I was keen to listen to the final speaker, John Keith who heads BT Legal’s employment team, which consists of 7 employment lawyers. That’s no small investment in dealing with your employee legal issues. Tempting though it was, I resisted the temptation to ask if BT were to create a more engaging, open, honest and transparent working environment in the first place, might they not need so many lawyers?! 😉

John spoke eloquently about the challenges facing organisations in dealing with social media issues but he did take the opportunity to challenge my own previous comments around not trying to control the conversation and that policy creation on this issue should be light and based on guidelines. Whilst I do respect John for the wider work he does and he challenges he faces, his approach to social media is similar to most lawyers.  They often blow the risks and downsides out of all proportion, which only serves to prevent the organisations and the HR profession in particular from seeing the huge benefits it an offer.

And the law doesn’t help here. John suggested, for example, that in a dispute with an employee over an issue that occurred as a result of social media use, the court will point the finger at the organisation if they haven’t got a policy pointing out, in detail, what can and cant be said, and how, on social media. This doesn’t make any sense at all, particularly when you consider that we don’t do this for the telephone. The law really is an ass when it forces us to go to extreme granular lengths to cover our backs particularly when these issues are already well catered for in other legislation covering health and safety, discrimination or bullying etc.

Seriously, one of the big problems I see is that at the moment, the people stressing over the ‘dangers’ of social media are actually not active users of it – John himself admitted he had no exposure, personally or professionally to the tools that he was building his case for caution around. And I’m sorry, but if you really want to understand the implications of its use, especially in a business context you really have to use it. This isn’t about the tools themselves, it’s about the human behaviour that manifests itself through them. This behaviour is incredibly important to understand because I believe it lies at the root of organisation success.

A comment John made towards the end of the summed up both the over the top, almost sensationalist approach lawyers are taking towards social and his own personal lack of understanding of the social phenomena:

“Social media can kill; if you text while driving.”

He may as well have said “Breathing is dangerous: if you do it underwater.”

*A big thank you to Erika Lucas and Amanda Brickell for inviting me along to the sessions, for making me so welcome and for organising the events.


  1. Very good blog, Gareth. It’s just a shame that (presumably) John will never see this blog. There’s probably someone else in BT who is wondering why young talented people don’t want to work in BT.


    1. Thank you for the positive comments Julian, hope all is ok with you! In organisations like BT there does seem to be a general focus of resource on dealing with the symptoms rather than addressing the cause, with poor consequences. it seems to be easier to justify an infrastructure to deal with these issues than it is to introduce ,erasures to open up the conversation. Sad because it’s coming anyway and they won’t be prepared.


  2. And the law doesn’t help here. John suggested, for example, that in a dispute with an employee over an issue that occurred as a result of social media use, the court will point the finger at the organisation if they haven’t got a policy pointing out, in detail, what can and cant be said, and how, on social media. This doesn’t make any sense at all, particularly when you consider that we don’t do this for the telephone.”

    This makes complete sense, from an employment law perspective. If an employer dismisses an employee because of his use of telephone use at work – for example, using it for personal calls – it will stand a much greater chance of defending a subsequent unfair dismissal claim if it can show that the employee knew what he was doing was wrong and had been provided with clear guidance on this. The simplest way of doing so it a policy setting out whether or not the employee is allowed to use the telephone for personal calls and, if so, to what extent. An employer that dismissed an employee for this without having had a policy that it drew to the employee’s attention would indeed be criticised by a tribunal, and would find it harder win the unfair dismissal claim. If you have a lot of employees using phones as part of their jobs, then not having rules about how they should ideally use them is asking for trouble.

    For an example of an employer (Aston Villa, in fact) that lost an unfair dismissal case as a result of not having drawn its employee’s attention to its views on him posting on message boards, see here.

    In the same way that employers have policies regarding employees’ use of email (which cover issues such as house style, personal use, and not saying anything derogatory about the company), so should they have policies regarding employees’ use of social media. Such policies don’t need to be overly prescriptive nor do they have to be “negative”; they can also promote good practice and the way that employees can use social media to further their job duties and objectives.

    When lawyers talk about employers having a “social media policy”, that covers a wide variety of “policies”: it doesn’t have to mean a long, complicated, restrictive document covering only social media. A social media policy can simply be a few lines added to an employer’s existing policies and procedures regarding IT (and, as you mention, references in its bullying/harassment policies). None of this means encroaching on the benefits that social media can provide to employees and employers. It’s just common sense from an employment law perspective.


    1. Hi John, thanks for the comments. I hear you but don’t agree. The law really is an ass on this in my opinion. I don’t deny the logic or that the law has a place, but as Barry hints to below, it’s just getting out of hand. On the one side you have lawyers attempting to find any tiny crack in the story to exploit, and on the other side you have lawyers trying to defend and also seal up any cracks. Did you notice the common denominator? Yep, lawyers. Funny that eh?

      I’m not saying that a company should not have measures or policies in place to deal with certain behaviour. The behaviour is not new John, it’s just that the medium is new. And I’m my view, the behaviour is already covered implicitly in the broader policies covering the things I mentioned – harassment etc or should be.

      We don’t have such granular detail for behaviour on the phone, so why should we have to so explicit regarding social media? What next? We didn’t have an explicit policy on the use of knives so therefore it’s our fault that Brian from accounts carved up Andrew from HR?

      I have said it before and will say it again. If you were to review recent history and case law, and add up the number of companies who’s brand has been bought into disrepute, or whose share price has stumbled, or who have gone out of business you will find one striking factor – The damage done to organisations by CXO’S either deliberately, maliciously or carelessly far outweighs that done by the average Joe employee.


  3. We’ve built a whole infrastructure in value destruction over the last 15 years (maybe longer) that has made doing business in this country a litiguous nightmare. We have an army of bureaucracts, social engineers and lawmakers restricting the ability to introduce ‘commonsense’ into our working parlance. Disappointed in BT but fully expect them to recover their social mojo once they’ve wrested control of the remote from today’s disaffected youth once they’ve won the entire EPL football rights…..

    or maybe they’ll require even more lawyers with a whole division policing the watching of sport during work hours conundrum 🙂

    Keep up the good fight Mr Jones….


  4. Gareth, you’re right – the behavior was already there (and has always been there), only the medium has changed. I wonder how much of the hype and hysteria is excerbated by social media being refered to as something new and separate from all other forms of communication instead of just another communication option.

    A while back another blogger (wish I could remember who, perhaps Seth Godin) raised the question of why have a social media strategy, when you don’t have a telephone strategy or an email strategy – forget a social media strategy and focus on a communication strategy (of which social media might play a role).

    Communication isn’t new, the only thing that really seems to set social media apart is the ease and scope possible.


  5. As you might expect, I agree. I can tell you the number of times I’ve had this conversation/debate and you know I’ve written about this too.

    The point you make in bold, is the point to take away. This is about behaviour and it is about trust, the tools are a total red herring.


  6. The debate is one that keeps repeating itself but as Neil emphasised, it is important to keep bringing people’s attention to the issue of how we set expectations around behaviour. As opposed to demonstrating that we don’t trust people.

    The ‘social media kills’ statement made me chuckle. We could just as easily stand up at an event and say ‘food kills’ – because if you try mess about unwrapping sandwiches etc whilst driving then that’s also dangerous. And if you overeat drastically its dangerous.


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