It had to happen eventually. The social media and digital tools that we obsessively use to document our lives and communicate with friends (and, more often than not, total strangers) have been on a collision course with the realities of the working world for a long time.
This European court ruling appears to provide clarification on the previously opaque relationship between personal tech and office time. Clarification, but hardly warranting a dramatic shift or change in existing procedures: my company, like countless others, has clear IT policies and guidelines in place that remain largely unaltered by this news.
Don't believe the hype
Much of the excitable coverage surrounding this ruling has confused the issue. Headlines about how bosses will now be able to see what their staff post on Facebook or the personal messages that are sent, are wide off the mark, when not contextualised as being only when employees do these things on company-owned machines and/or are in direct contravention of an existing policy. Some of the reports would lead the reader to infer that company IT departments have now been given the green light to hack their employees personal devices with impunity, which is nonsense.
This important technicality aside, the case at the heart of this ruling concerned an employee using a direct messaging tool to communicate on personal matters, and the fact that this was done on a company-owned machine during work hours. To jazz-up the story (and because everything looks better with Facebook in the headline) social media has been thrown into the reporting mix in terms of being, by implication, now under the sanction of snooping bosses.
Though not directly relevant to the EU case, but as it has been lumped-in by others, let's just take stock of how social media transgressions in the workplace have come to our attention in the recent past. We have had years of stories about employees losing their jobs because of unwise Facebook or Twitter posts, and the pitchfork and burning torches brigade doesn't really go to town on these individuals' behalf because, let's face it, most of these dismissals have appeared bang-to-rights.
We can't have unfettered social media usage
The thing that sticks in my mind when looking at the aftermath of these 'I posted something racist/sexist/offensive on Twitter and lost my job' stories is the apparent incredulity and indignation on the part of the newly unemployed individuals. This attitude seems common to most cases, irrespective of the medium or tech used by the alleged perpetrator, and appeared to be shared by the gentleman at the heart of this story. Society has rightly grown used to the idea of internet access as being a civil right of sorts, and seamlessly applies the same rules to everything that the internet offers: including unfettered social media usage.
Now, I use Twitter, and I love it. I think that social media has liberated the flow of opinions and news and, in the main, proved a force for good. To say or think otherwise would be idiotic. However, the fact remains that for too long there has been a confusion as to what is acceptable behaviour when it comes to the use of personal technology in the workplace.
It has almost been taboo and backward to suggest that an employee's work performance is in any way impeded by concurrent social media-based flirting or political debate. Companies that, in their pre-2000 incarnation, would have fired staff on the spot for conducting personal phone calls during office hours, appear confused about what to do about the same thing happening online.
Parameters should be set and established
I struggled to find figures on the number of UK companies with clear policies in place with regards to non-work-related internet usage, but personally, I know of several that have opted to leave such issues vague. This is unfair on employees, and stores-up trouble for the company longer term. There's no one-size-fits-all policy for tech usage in the work place, particularly in an age when some companies (and individuals within companies) use social media as part of their work. However, these things cannot police themselves, and therefore parameters should be set and established: enshrined within contracts of employment, but also subject to regular review based upon the development of tech.
Of course, the big joke is that if staff want to keep up-to-date with social gossip, vent their spleen or hit on strangers, they can just use their own smartphones which are bound by neither the EU ruling nor typical IT policy. The point is that this ruling, once the dust settles, the hysteria dies-down, and the actual facts emerge, does start establishing guidelines for responsible tech usage that will lead to happier and more productive workplaces for both employers and employees alike.