More and more union activists are finding themselves having to defend members against Facebook (or other social media) disciplinaries. Generally, the member has “brought the company into disrepute” by something they have posted on social media. This often increases during periods of industrial action, and union activists need to be prepared to defend people.

Workers have as much right to be online as anyone else, and it is only natural that people will want to vent some time. Managers often overreact to something quite minor, and it can help to put things in perspective.

Does the company have a clear internet and social media policy? Has this been clearly communicated to staff. In many instances, this is not the case, and the disciplinary can be used to highlight to an employer why having a clear and transparent policy is a good thing.

Employment relations mediation service ACAS provides some guidance here.

Advice to give members on using social media safely for union activism

– Adapted from guidance issued by the FBU

  • Assume what you write can be read by anyone. Even if your posts are written on private sites, they can be easily reposted elsewhere.
  • Imagine saying the same thing to yourself. If you wouldn’t want the same thing said to you, it’s probably not a good idea to say it to others. Don’t swear, be polite, and your arguments will be strengthened.
  • Imagine saying the same thing to your boss, friends, spouse or mum. The fact that you are not discussing something face-to-face won’t affect how offensive, unsuitable or unfair your comments will be interpreted.
  • Take your time. You should never feel an obligation to respond immediately online. Everyone balances time at their computer with other activities, so a delay for you to compose your thoughts, calm down and consider the right response is often a good idea.
  • Don’t feel obliged to get involved/respond. You are under no obligation to respond to offensive, inaccurate or otherwise irritating claims online, and getting a rise out of you can often be the poster’s objective. Hardly any internet discussions finish with one side conceding they were wrong. Don’t feel obliged to have the last word.
  • Ask for help. If something is in real need of correction — particularly if issued in an official capacity by government or other organisation — contact your union reps.
  • Never consider yourself anonymous. It does not take a great deal of technical knowledge to trace internet activity back to particular computers, email addresses and ultimately people. If you wouldn’t say something if you could be identified, don’t say it at all.
  • Discuss, don’t argue. It may be a fine line, but the aim should be to convince people, particularly third parties to the conversation — not to point score, undermine or otherwise detract from the issues.
  • Don’t make enemies without reason. However great our grievances, we are not the only group under attack. It’s a mistake to let us be played off against each other.
  • Assume your post will be visible forever. Although websites and social media may have ‘delete’ functions, it is impossible to truly remove the footprint left by a post, and in fact deleting a post can actually draw more attention to it.
  • Never be defamatory. You should assume that you will be held legally accountable for anything said online in the same way as if you wrote it in print or said it publicly.
  • Check your comments for spelling and grammar before you click send. No one is perfect, particularly online, where content is often submitted very quickly, but grammatical and spelling mistakes will detract from your argument, and will be picked up by those who disagree with you.
  • Be particularly careful with photos. Never ever submit a photo online that you wouldn’t be comfortable being seen on the work notice board, in your Christmas card or on a t-shirt.
  • Don’t post drunk. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this leads to trouble.
  • Don’t quote people without permission. Your professional and social life may make you party to information that others would be uncomfortable being made public. Don’t quote it without permission.
  • Hide unsuitable comments from friends. Social media can create a unique space where your friends, families and colleagues share a single space. Like it or not, you will be judged on posts by your associates. If your friends are being inappropriate, don’t hesitate to hide or remove their activity
  • Only befriend or follow people you can trust. Again, you will be judged on the behaviour or your online associates, and your information on social media — such as phone numbers, email addresses and even financial details — can be used for nefarious purposes. Chose your company carefully.
  • Familiarise yourself with privacy settings. Remember many social media and website providers allow you to change who has access to your information. Make sure you get to grips with the settings and use them appropriately.
  • Don’t post links without reading them. If a post with a seemingly innocuous title turns out to be racist, pornographic or otherwise unpleasant or illegal after you’ve posted it you will be judged accordingly! It is also embarrassing to be told that a link you have posted doesn’t work, as it implies you’re trying to claim credit for finding/understanding it without actually reading it properly.
  • Be accurate. There is no shortage of information online, and you can’t trust anything and regurgitate it without checking it’s true. Avoid the temptation to rely on rumour: the fact that your mum’s cousin’s dog’s vet’s sister’s social worker said that government pensions are growing faster than anyone else’s does not make it true. Be factual, concise and clear.
  • Be particularly careful at work. The presence of IT at work and the ubiquity of smart phones now mean you can access social media and the full extremes of online content at work or anywhere else. Browser histories, the auto-complete function of web addresses and even calls from internet providers can lead to trouble, and posting while on duty will often be viewed as little different from mouthing off in uniform. If your workplace has an internet policy, read it and follow it, raising any problems or issues with a union rep.