Get social: Managing staff in the digital age

The way we communicate is changing and when personal frustrations are expressed in public spheres, the stakes are higher. For practices dealing with disgruntled staff social media is a growing concern; how can you manage your staff in an unmanageable – and virtual – environment? Lisa Wainwright, HR advisor for the First Practice Management (FPM) Group, provides lessons in social media management

Social media usage has increased exponentially over the last decade and shows no hint of slowing down. As the health sector continually adapts to medical technology, new IT systems and greater system interconnectivity, so too must it adapt to the online world.

In 2015 practices were told they needed to have a practice website up-and-running by April 2017. More recently, funding was granted to 20 early adopter CCGs to introduce free wifi for patients from March 31 this year, with NHS digital saying they expect five million patients to benefit from the first wave of free wifi. Although the service was originally introduced in response to patient demand, it is hoped that it will also be used to enhance the fledgling services of digital patient care.

Social (media) decorum

In addition to managing digital patient services practice managers have been facing a shift in employee relations’ cases from challenging behaviour in the practice to challenging behaviour online, where there is a risk that employee conduct on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (or similar) can impact a practice’s reputation.

Employers across the board are finding current and former employees are increasingly more likely to air their grievances about colleagues, employers and clients/customers/service users/patients online, putting the practice’s reputation at risk with the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger.

Defamatory (untrue) statements about the practice, colleagues and patients

For online content to be defamatory it must be untrue, seek to undermine the reputation of the organisation and be capable of causing serious harm to the practice’s reputation – this can also include memes, graphics and cartoons.

Other potentially damaging material posted by an employee

Where the online content is true, but there’s a disclosure of confidential information about the practice, colleagues or patients, it may amount to a breach of confidence.

Investigating the issue

  • Collect any available evidence such as:
  • Copies of the post and any associated likes/comments/re-shares or similar
  • Evidence of whether access was private or public and the potential size of the audience, such as how many friends/followers the employee has.
  • Make a record of any complaints received about the post, evidence of damage caused, losses suffered or likely to be suffered.
  • Verify who has access to the account in question – how sure are you that it was a particular member of staff? Who else might they say had access to their profile/account? If this is not obvious you can ask the social networking site for this information; they may disclose it, depending on the circumstances.
  • Sit down with the employee and discuss the complaints received, the evidence you have found and ask them to respond to the allegations. Explore their understanding of any relevant policies you have such as the employee handbook, equal opportunities/dignity at work policies, bullying and harassment/disciplinary policies and email/internet/social media/social networking policies.
  • Ask the employee to remove the material and, if they refuse, contact the website host directly and ask them to remove it. Well known sites with reputations to protect are more likely to be responsive to complaints than smaller sites or sites outside jurisdiction.
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Disciplinary action

If you feel there is a case to answer invite the employee to a formal disciplinary hearing in line with your disciplinary policy. Review all the evidence and mitigation again and consider which sanction is appropriate – for example, a first or final written warning or, in cases of gross misconduct, immediate dismissal. Factors you need to consider are:

  • Is there a clear policy on the use of social media in place?
  • Does it make clear what standards of conduct are expected of staff and explain the possible consequences of a breach of the policy?
  • Does it differentiate between conduct during working hours and outside work?
  • Has the employee done something similar before?
  • How public was the post and how far-reaching the damage?
  • Consider any mitigation or other evidence provided by the employee.

Policies on use of social media and social networking sites

Make sure your policies are clear, up-to-date and known throughout the practice; make staff aware that breaches may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.

References and research

GP Online: Hundreds of GP practices to have free wifi for patients by end of March

Xpert HR: How to deal with an employee who has posted negative comments…