From education to employment

Student & staff use of social media – managing the organisational risk

Most educational institutions are using and engaging with social media to aid recruitment and communicate with stakeholders, as well as for marketing purposes, and so do not need persuading of its benefits. Social media has truly transformed the way colleges communicate and engage with staff and students.

Fewer institutions though have stopped to consider the organisational risks that social media presents. More and more student and staff disciplinary issues have a social media element and the lines between college life and private life are becoming increasingly blurred as the bulk of internet traffic passes onto mobile devices.

What happens if a student or a member of staff should racially harass another from their own device outside core working hours? How should institutions respond if defamatory remarks are made by a staff member or student? What to do if a staff member or student brings the organisation into disrepute, leaks personal data or commercially sensitive information online? How far can a college be held responsible by a victim of online bullying?

Those of us working within human resource management are having to find fast answers to such questions in relation to employee behaviour but such issues are equally relevant within the context of student misconduct online. This is new and unchartered territory and whilst most colleges by now will have implemented a social media strategy for communication, publicity and student/staff recruitment they may not have considered the risks that come along with the amazing benefits this medium offers.

Here are the just some of the key areas of risk that colleges need to address when thinking about student and staff use of social media.

Partially or totally banning students and staff from accessing social media sites on the college system is impractical and ineffective. Most colleges realise the futility of such bans as staff and students can readily access social media sites in their breaks or lunch hours from their own devices. Better to provide good clear guidelines and expectations for staff and students about how to use social media effectively and safely, perhaps with one or two examples of what is and what is not considered appropriate online behaviour. Making complaint pathways readily accessible will be important if staff and students are to have confidence that they can raise legitimate objections or complaints related to comments posted about them or photographs uploaded of them online if they are connected to college life.

Under UK law, the employer is generally liable for the actions of its employees whilst they are carrying out their employment. This is known as “vicarious liability”. The best defence for an employer is to show that the employee was not taking action as part of his employment, but was off on “a frolic of his own”. In order to help protect themselves employers should therefore draw up e-mail and social media policies clearly setting out what use may and may not be made of email and social media in connection with college life, perhaps supported by training. Such policies will need to be updated regularly in the light of technological advances. The social media policy should also be cross referenced with other policies such as the staff and student disciplinary policies, IT policies and bullying and harassment policies.

Colleges must also take all reasonable practicable steps to act upon student misuse of social media. This means that sitting on your hands, hoping no one will see a problematic comment, photograph or email posted or sent by a student is not an option. The moment something comes to your attention as potential misconduct or behaviour which may expose the college to the risk of problems or even litigation, then action should be taken to mitigate the damage. This would usually involve investigating any complaints and, if appropriate, taking disciplinary action against the student or staff member. Corrective action may also need to be taken by culpable staff and students which may include removing offending comments from social networking sites or bulletin boards or taking down or untagging photos, wherever practicable.

Advising staff and students on safe use of social media sites should be considered a part of good health and safety practice and this will ensure that institutions have gone some of the way to fulfilling their duty of care to both staff and students. IT professionals will be crucial partners in advising or briefing staff and students on aspects of staying safe online and this might encompass such issues as guidance on security settings on social networking sites.

It is important for all staff and students to be aware that bringing the organisation into disrepute by making untrue or defamatory comments will not be tolerated and such behaviour should be cited in the disciplinary codes. Most of the cases related to bringing organisations into disrepute have centered around blogs. Maintaining the balance between the right to free speech and managing the online reputation of the college is always going to be difficult but giving a clear definition and examples of what constitutes bringing the organisation into disrepute or defamation will be helpful to those students or staff members who might be legitimately blogging in a personal capacity or as a part of their professional role or studies.

Breaches of student and staff personal data and of other confidential organisational information should are also potential problems and should also be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

Cyber bullying is bullying which takes place in the virtual world and can be undertaken via social media sites, email or text. Bullying is not specifically defined in law, but in their advice leaflet for employees, Acas give the following definition: ‘Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

Harassment is defined in law within the Equality Act 2010 and is described as, ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’.

Bullying, harassment and discriminatory acts can all be undertaken in the digital world, just as they can in the real world. Most of the media reports regarding cyber bullying have focussed on children and teenagers being bullied by their peers but it is becoming increasingly common within the workplace too. Typical examples of cyber bullying typically include:

  • Offensive e-mails

  • E-mail threats

  • Posting blogs and comments left on social networking sites

  • Spreading lies and malicious gossip

  • Threatening or offensive text messages

Victims of cyber bullying and harassment are protected by the same laws as are victims of face-to- face bullying and harassment and no distinction should be made between the two methods within your college’s policies.

The key action points for colleges are:

  • To ensure there are robust social media policies in place and that such policies are regularly updated in the light of fast moving technological changes.

  • Ensuring there are transparent and efficient complaint pathways for staff and students should they wish to complain about comments or photographs which affect them.

  • To clarify that social media policies are appropriately cross referenced to the college’s student and staff disciplinary, IT use and bullying and harassment policies.

  • To act quickly when inappropriate online behaviour comes to light. This would normally include investigating allegations of bullying, harassment, discrimination or instances of bringing the organisation into disrepute without undue delay.

  • To make sure that staff and students are advised on what they can do to stay safe and protect themselves form unwanted intrusion when using social media sites.

  • To train staff in appropriate use of social media and to make it clear that online misconduct will be treated seriously, particularly where there are elements of harassment, bullying, defamation, bringing the college into disrepute, discrimination or leakage of personal data.

  • Make it clear to everyone that using their own devices or computers in or outside core college hours is no defence to risky or inappropriate online behaviour. The guiding principle is, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face or write it down in a letter and post it to somebody then do not publish it online or send it in an email or text!

  • Be prepared to use screen shots, texts and emails received as part of the evidential basis for taking disciplinary action against staff and student who do not behave appropriately online.

Thankfully student and staff misconduct online is the exception rather than the rule and most individuals will use the technology in an appropriate manner. It is however crucial that colleges understand the key issue and areas of risk and that they respond quickly when incidents occur.

Richard Payne is director of BSPS Training Consultancy Limited, and runs a half day in house course for FE institutions entitled, ’Staff and Student Use of Social Media – managing the organisational risk. For a course information sheet contact the Course Registrar: [email protected]

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