On a Final Warning

September 5, 2011

Before trivialising and pointing out a few flaws in the {guidance and fact-sheets that were made available by Acas this week: http://www.scl.org/site.aspx?i=ne22115}, I do want to make a positive point. They are the most sensible thing I have read in this area. The research offers some useful insights and makes a number of highly sensible suggestions and the fact-sheets ‘offering practical tips’ are full of worthwhile advice.

There are inevitably a few health warnings.

I am not sure that research that focuses on the employment policies of BT, HMRC and Acas itself is all that likely to produce data that enables conclusions of universal applicability. Certainly there are employers out there who are not known by initials and, more pertinently, many much smaller organisations. Moreover, as is readily acknowledged by Acas, this is a fast moving area – for example, a reference to an academic study published in 2008 is to look back into another era. In fact this is such a fast-moving area that it is impossible to really grapple with two recent changes – the impact of computing mobility (smartphones plus) on both employment patterns and social networking and the penetration of social networking beyond the ‘highly qualified’ office-based staff that were once the sole presenters of problems.

The latter point has attracted little attention but I suggest that it poses separate problems at times. We all know that the Wetherspoon case is a leading example of the dangers of tweeting about your customers but how do you feel about people receiving Facebook updates while holding a chainsaw. Of the social networking addicts I know, one is a proper builder (ie one with dirty hands) and another is a dairy hand – text input doesn’t always sit well with manual work and I for one do not want someone tweeting while holding my ladder (I’m sure udders feel the same). It is worth catering for such employees specifically in any policy. It may also be worth looking at varying the policy for people working away from the office most of the time – Acas offer a nod in this direction but not enough in my opinion.

I am less than convinced that the creation of internal online chatrooms where employees can ‘let off steam without fear of reprisals’ is all that workable. Maybe it isn’t as daft an idea as my initial laughter suggested but it certainly won’t work in smaller organisations.

There seems too to be some confusion about monitoring. Perhaps it needs a more careful read. I was impressed by the point, new to me, that monitoring pre-recruitment might lead to discrimination – you end up knowing a lot more about your potential employee and may struggle to show that, say, sexual orientation or seven children has not influenced your decision. Since most discrimination cases are about post-employment issues (eg refused promotion or redundancy selection), avoiding monitoring pre-recruitment is not a complete answer. But how does that fit with the old chestnut of the employee ringing in sick but with a Facebook status of ‘At Alton Towers’? Acas seems torn, but the fact-sheets do make it clear that the policy should leave employees in no doubt about what level of monitoring is taking place (which will be useful when planning a trip to Alton Towers).

One thing that Acas make clear, and for which they deserve credit, is that any policy on social networking needs to be subject to regular review. I guess the same is true of wider Internet use policies too. Acas recognise concern among employers about productivity being badly affected by employees spending too much time away from core work. Here at Eastham Towers, the MD and his co-director have taken all that to heart. They have reviewed the policy and have also taken a broad look at the time I have spent in recent months on Internet sites of general interest, including Facebook and twitter. I now find myself on a final warning and, unless it keeps raining at the cricket, may well shortly face the sack.

(The researchers for Acas might like to note that it was not a fuddy duddy law firm called ‘Dixon Mason’ that sacked blogger Catherine Sanderson (aka Petite Anglaise), it was fuddy duddy accountancy firm Dixon Wilson.)