EMPLOYERS that give their staff free rein on social media websites risk damage to their brand, and confidential information being leaked, a workplace law expert has warned.
And research to be published soon on the amount of time Australian workers spend using applications such as Facebook and Twitter indicates most dip briefly in and out of them, with only a small percentage of workers seriously over-using them at work.
Tony Vernier, managing director of Australian Business Lawyers and Advisors, told an industrial relations conference in Melbourne this month that employers should tell their staff what is acceptable when using social media.
"And you can't just have a policy on the shelf – if people don't know about it, it's as if you don't have a policy," Mr Vernier said.
A small number of employers have fired staff for using social media in the workplace in Australia in the last three years, although in many cases the dismissal has been found to be unfair.
A Melbourne landscape architect fired last year for overusing Google's mail chat service was found to have been unfairly dismissed. Richard O'Connor was abruptly sacked for more than "3000 transactions on a chat line during work time". But Fair Work Australia found that, as no guidance had been given by the employer about net use, the excessive use did not justify his dismissal.
Mr Vernier said that in the last year, many of Australia's bigger companies had put in place social media policies, but small and medium sized businesses had not.
He cited a recent Linfox case involving a truck driver with 22 years experience who had posted insulting messages about his workmates.
The driver, Glen Stutsel, was sacked for comments made on his Facebook page, including one about his site manager, a Muslim, who he called a "bacon hater". Mr Stutsel got his job back because the court believed his argument that he had thought the conversation with his Facebook friends was private.
Since 2009, Swinburne University academic Rajesh Vasa has studied how Australian employees are accessing social media sites in workplaces.
Research he co-authored studied at 18,000 office workers, looking at how they used the internet and social media. The first results, published in November 2011, found around 80 per cent of people would flick into Facebook or another social media site, and spend "maybe 20-30 seconds, or up to minute, and then come back to their work", Dr Vasa said.
"There are a few people who spend a lot of time on it (social media) but that is not the majority." he said.
The study looked mostly at Twitter and Facebook, as well as LinkedIn.
He said a follow-up study he was involved in, which is yet to be published, indicates "people who have a lot of work, who are busy, do not spend a lot of time on social media".
"The bulk of the usage happens around lunchtime, between 12.30pm and 1.30pm," he said.