Should managers connect with staff on social media?

The question of whether managers should connect with their staff on social media often comes up when I’m delivering bullying and harassment training. The employment lawyer in me always answers no!

To date, unfair dismissal cases in Australia involving social media have been about employees misusing it – making offensive, derogatory or discriminatory comments about a manager or colleague; complaining about not getting a bonus or being made redundant; criticising their employer; or attempting to solicit work for their own private business.

Just because a manager hasn’t yet had to front up to the Fair Work Commission or other court or tribunal doesn’t mean there aren’t legal risks for managers who connect with their staff on social media. Rather than launch into a list of all the legal risks (and there are many), the real life scenarios managers themselves have raised for discussion in my workshops demonstrate why being online “friends” with your staff should be avoided, or at least carefully considered.

Scenario One: A manager was friends on Facebook with his whole team. A new recruit started. While the new recruit was very competent, the manager found her personality somewhat difficult to deal with. After finding out everyone else was friends with the manager on Facebook, the new recruit sent a friend request to her manager. The manager didn’t accept that request. The new recruit later accused her manager of bullying, citing the failure to accept her friend request as an example of her manager’s unreasonable, isolating behaviour.

Scenario Two: A manager is friends with her team on Facebook. One of her team members “comes out as gay” on Facebook but never mentions this at work. Shortly after, the manager selects that team member for redundancy and is accused of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Scenario Three: A manager has connected with a number of male and female staff on Instagram. In his own time, he regularly posts photos of women in skimpy bikinis with comments about particular parts of their bodies. The manager doesn’t have pictures like this at work and he had never had a complaint made against him. However, a male colleague of his expressed his concern that there is “talk” among staff that the manager is sexist, some staff are reluctant to work with him because of this and that this is likely to impact on his career.

Scenario Four: A manager has connected with a number of her staff on LinkedIn. From time to time LinkedIn automatically suggests endorsements for her connections, which she usually accepts without much thought. She has recently endorsed an employee she now needs to ‘performance manage’ for not meeting expectations in an area closely related to the skill she endorsed.

As these scenarios demonstrate, the legal risks of connecting with your staff on social media are just one part of the equation. The line between boss and buddy can be blurred by social media. Having good relationships with your staff is important, but it is more important to be a leader rather than a friend.

Ai Group recommends all employers have a policy on social media that provides guidance to employees and managers about appropriate work and personal use.

Our leadership and bullying and harassment training programs are designed to develop an awareness around legal obligations in the workplace and build self-awareness around one’s own style and effectiveness as a leader.

Have you introduced policies in your workplace concerning relationships on social media? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

Should you require any advice on this subject, please contact Emma Howden, Ai Group’s National Manager – Workplace Training and Events.

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Emma has specialised in workplace relations and employment law since 1997, having worked at law firms and employer associations both in Australia and the UK. Since 2011, she now provides training for the areas in which she used to advise, managing Ai Group’s workplace relations training and seminars nationally.

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