Opening Pandora’s Box: legal risks on the SE/CE curve

Scales of justice

Potentially the most serious risk for any business is communicating the wrong things over the wrong medium. Lengthy court actions can be won or lost over communication error.  With social media opening communication up across the online space, and the lines between personal and business matters being increasingly blurred, companies need to take real care.  Galia Digital spoke to the Endeavour Partnership about the risks businesses face in the digital age, and how to minimise them effectively.

Getting the basics right

Business people with corporate experience (strong CE) will normally have a good idea of the legal hoops to be jumped through by a company, although depending on their degree of social engagement they may not realise how much traditional legislation applies to the online space.  The requirements of the Companies Act 2006 and others have been covered in our earlier blog ‘Keeping your Website Legal‘ – take a look and check that your business is publishing all the right information in emails and on websites.

Active communication risks

Endeavour PartnershipThe big stumbling block, however, is in active communication.  Julie Bruce of Endeavour Partnership outlined the potential risks that come with less formal communication on email and social media.  These include employment matters such as harassment, discrimination and defamation; contractual issues such as accidental formation or breach of contracts; data protection and copyright considerations, including trade secrets being inadvertently revealed, and of course IT security including hacking and virus transmission – look out for our next blog “What does data security mean to you’ for a longer discussion of the physical risks in the online space.

Trials and tribulations

Employers may be surprised that harassment, discrimination and defamation come to the top of the list here.  Symptomatic of the blurring between business and personal communication, the potential for intended or unintended slights, bullying, and unwanted attention is huge – and if this happens within a group of work colleagues, it’s the employer’s responsibility to be on top of it; an employer is automatically responsible for the behaviour of employees.  Circulating an offensive meme? If a colleague takes offence, they have recourse to the Equality Act 2010.  Someone under stress because they feel they are being harassed, excluded or bullied? The employer has a responsibility to safeguard their mental health.  An employee leaves because they object to the behaviour of their colleagues on social media?  Constructive dismissal is a possibility.

Ignoring social media, thinking it is a ‘personal’ matter, can open up a business to costly tribunal claims.  For want of a nail the battle was lost : for want of a social media policy, a company can be lost.

Pandora’s box

But how does an employer react?  How do you keep a lid on Pandora’s Box?  It’s a real minefield, but one which can be navigated with care.  First, training: make sure your socially engaged (strong SE) staff get a taste of the risks that the experienced (strong CE) staff take for granted.  But don’t over-react!  Strong SE is essential to a modern business, and clamping down can be counterproductive – not only by failing to reach new markets, but potentially monitoring too closely and violating the human rights of your employees!  Work out the balance that will work for your business.  Understand the positive points in social media and email communication, but set the right limits for your organisation and document them properly in the company handbook.

The risks of strong social engagement / low corporate experience are many, but knowing where the risks lie and managing them in an open and proactive way reduces your exposure.  Look hard at your business, and minimise those risks while grabbing the opportunities with both hands.

Some of this was addressed in our earlier blog ‘“Social Media challenges for a Growing Business”