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IM Educate Briefing

Legal Briefing - 30 June 2017

Teaching your staff about social media

In the past year there has been a steady stream of tabloid stories about teachers whose social posts and photographs have caused professional embarrassment to them and the schools and FE colleges in which they work.

The problem of course is that unlike sounding off to your mates at the pub, posting comments via social media creates a permanent record and once something has been sent, the writer has no control over who else sees it. Pupils with time on their hands have been found to be quite good at dredging up embarrassing images of their teachers.

Your staff are entitled to a private life and to hold opinions that you may not agree with but there are steps you can take to prevent them from damaging your school’s reputation via social media or being the victim of online abuse from parents and pupils.

1. Develop a social media policy

You can discipline and in serious cases dismiss staff for posting comments or images about your school provided you have a policy which spells out what your staff can and cannot say about it, the pupils who attend it, or about other people within the organisation.

It is easier and safer to do so if you have a policy which sets out your expectations of staff when it comes to social media, and warns them of the consequences of not following the policy. This can be either incorporated into your employee handbook, or used as a stand-alone policy.

You should also explain what steps your organisation will take to protect members of staff who are subjected to online abuse by other members of staff, pupils or parents.

Your first duty is to protect the children under your care. It is therefore appropriate to ban staff from befriending pupils (and parents), taking pictures of them or referring to them via any social media forum (including email and text messaging). However, an absolute ban on staff referring to the work they do is probably unrealistic. There is no ‘one size fits all’ but a middle ground might be to require employees who do identify you as their employer (or who are online ‘friends’ with individuals associated with the school who know you to be their employer) to maintain professional standards in their postings.

Staff should be reminded that they must not spread workplace “gossip” or post confidential information about the school/FE college itself, and that comments about colleagues must respect your policies, for example, on bullying and harassment.

If you consider that certain online behaviour is so serious it will constitute gross misconduct, you must explain in the social media policy what behaviour will entitle you to dismiss an employee without notice. You should make sure that this is added to any other acts of gross misconduct set out in your disciplinary policy.

It is essential that your staff understand that these restrictions are not limited to comments they make during working hours, perhaps using school/FE equipment but apply equally to information posted using their own devices in their own time. This is something that employees often misunderstand.

Without a social media policy, schools and FE colleges will find it more difficult to discipline staff for posting inappropriate comments. To start with you will need to find out how much damage or potential damage has been caused to the organisation’s reputation – something you may prefer not to do, as it runs the risk of highlighting to other people, something that they may not be even aware of. Even if you can show that interested parties might have read or seen the message, you should not take a disproportionate view of the damage that has, or could have been, incurred.

2. Train your staff

It is not enough to write a policy. You must make sure that your employees understand the policy, and particularly what is expected of them and the support that they can expect for your organisation if they are subjected to abuse via social media. Give all members of staff copies of the school’s policies (or tell them how to access these) and provide relevant training. Some employers do this by way of a compulsory online training or reading programme, the results of which are stored, so that they have evidence that staff have read the policies.

It is also sensible to provide support and advice to your staff so that they can protect themselves online and prevent their private life being accessed and commented upon by pupils and their parents.

3. Make sure your leaders and governors set the standard

It is no good having a policy unless it is followed by everyone within the organisation, from the top down. There should be no exceptions and the leadership team should lead by example.

4. Prevent harassment and bullying via social media

You may also need to update your equal opportunities/harassment and bullying policies to include cyber bullying. You should ensure that your employees understand that they should not post discriminatory comments about other members of staff, parents or other groups associated with the school on social networks – even on forums that they consider to be private as this may expose you to discrimination claims.

Schools and FE colleges should also act quickly if staff are being bullied by pupils, former pupils or parents on social network sites, as failing to act may expose the organisation to claims, particularly if the teacher becomes ill or resigns.

5. Social media should not be used to voice workplace disputes

Remind your staff that they should not to use social networks to raise grievances. Work related problems should be dealt with under the school/FE’s grievance procedures.

6. Take appropriate action against the culprits

Act quickly once you become aware of issues. If you believe that a member of your staff has posted inappropriate, damaging or discriminatory remarks online, you should follow your disciplinary procedure and impose a suitable sanction. In most cases a written or final warning should be sufficient for a first offence. Make sure that the employee understands what will happen if they post any further inappropriate comments (i.e. they will receive a final written warning or may be dismissed).

This will send out a message to your staff that you do treat breaches seriously and will, over time, encourage staff to think carefully before firing off random and ill-considered comments.

If the posts were made by parents or pupils you should promptly investigate the issue and take appropriate action to resolve it. What is appropriate will depend on the severity of the matter but, in serious cases, it may include contacting the police, suspending and/or excluding the pupil.

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