Can education and social media be friends?
Education law solicitor Natalie Ruane examines social media within education.
In 2015 there is certainly no getting away from many varieties of social media; for example Facebook, Twitter and Linked-in. This is especially true for the Education sector, where most students, parents and staff will probably be using some form of social media on a daily basis. Perhaps one of the main reasons for social media being so prevalent in our everyday lives now is that it is so accessible on many handheld devices.
Social networking sites have re-defined the way in which we interact with our friends, colleagues, customers and stakeholders. But, whilst social media can be an effective way of sharing information and engaging with students and parents, its increasing pervasiveness causes concerns in relation to acceptable use by students, staff and parents and safeguarding and appropriate relationships. Most institutions will have seen members of staff ‘over using’ social networking at work and it is now commonplace for us to see cases where social media is a factor in employee discipline and dismissal.
Apart from opening schools, colleges and universities up to the potential for a serious data security breach either accidentally (or on purpose!), there is a real risk that employers could be liable for harassment, discrimination or bullying of employees by other employees which may be taking place online rather than openly within the work environment.
The difference for businesses and the education sector in managing these risks is the students and parents. The Education sector mustn’t just think about implementing appropriate HR policies and procedures for staff; the risks are equally relevant to student and parent online behaviour. Higher and further education providers need to be aware of what is happening outside of tutorials and lecture theatres in relation to social media. The conventional interaction between teaching staff, students and parents can be difficult to uphold. Both staff and students have found themselves victims of cyber bullying, with vicious hate sites, graphically photo shopped images and fake accounts all becoming increasingly negative problems.
Given the risks, it is no surprise that some institutions have banned employee access to social networking sites at work, but what about derogatory, offensive or inappropriate comments that are posted in an employee’s own time or on an employee’s own device? Many employers have still reacted strongly and promptly to this behaviour and last year there were numerous high profile cases involving employees who lost their jobs as a result of such actions.
However, social networking sites are here to stay. So is banning it at work really the best way to tackle this problem? Most institutions now look for the benefit in social networking rather than banishing it from the workplace completely. This actually enables them to have more control regarding workplace content. However, there must be a degree of caution, and policies and procedures must be in place to ensure that employees use social networking in a professional, authorised manner. Employers should ensure that employees are clear on what is acceptable behaviour and, if necessary advise them to review their privacy settings for social networking sites.
Banning social media within HE and FE education organisations is an unrealistic option. Instead higher and further education providers should ensure that there are clear and accessible social media policies in place for staff and students which document what is and what is not acceptable in terms of online interaction. They should make clear that any form of bullying, making inappropriate and offensive comments and the spreading of lies or rumours is not acceptable behaviour. In addition, the procedures should plainly demonstrate the consequences of failing to adhere to the policies both for staff and students. Parents are more difficult to control but if they are using social media to spread lies or damage the institution’s reputation that needs to be dealt with without delay by communication with both the parent and often, the social media provider used.
Consideration should also be given to the extent to which online relationships and interactions outside the teaching setting is allowed. The social media policies should make it clear that inappropriate conduct or relationships do not have to happen within the teaching environment to be considered unacceptable.
In addition, higher and further education providers should have a clear and accessible complaints procedure regarding online conduct and advising when and how people can safely raise complaints. Institutions should also ensure that other policies are updated to reflect the social media policies, so for example the IT, bullying and harassment and disciplinary policies all need to align.
Finally, HE and FE providers must take the time and effort to train and educate staff and students on acceptable online behavior and interactions, how to remain safe, how to positively and effectively interact in the most beneficial ways and regarding professionalism and career risks.
For specialist employment law advice on managing social media in the Education sector, contact Natalie Ruane on 01228 552222.
About the author
Natalie is a Partner and leads the Employment Law & HR team and specialises in education.
Published: Wednesday 23rd September 2015