Public bodies in Norfolk and Suffolk discipline staff over social media comments

PUBLISHED: 08:14 13 January 2012

A person using the internet to log onto the social network website

A person using the internet to log onto the social network website "Facebook". Picture: James Bass For: EDP News Eastern Daily Press © 2008 (01603) 772434

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2008

The extent to which public bodies have had to discipline staff over inappropriate comments made on social networking websites has emerged following a request by the EDP.

From school staff posting inappropriate sexual comments and signing up to groups perceived to have racist values, to mental health workers making comments about clients’ deaths, the Freedom of Information request shows how many organisations have seen a rise in the number of cases leading to disciplinary procedures.

While some councils and health trusts are still in the process of drafting policies on dealing with social media postings, existing guidance from Norfolk and Suffolk’s police force warns that staff use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook could leave also them vulnerable to be targeted by criminals.

All of Norfolk County Council’s 12 cases over the past five years involved staff working in schools, and while one teaching union is warning that employees need to be careful of what they post online, they also pointed out that teachers themselves are becoming targets for malicious online comments from both pupils and parents.

With one case in 2008, two in 2009 , four in 2010 and five in 2011, there has been a clear rise in cases, which involved posting inappropriate images, publishing information in breach of a written agreement, in appropriate comments about and contact with service users, as well comments about employers and colleagues and breaches of confidentiality.

Many were identified by work colleagues, external complaints or anonymous complaints, with two members of staff dismissed as a result.

Colin Collis, county branch secretary for the NASUWT teaching union, said teachers have a right to private life, but they need to be aware that information published online cannot be kept private.

He said: “We strongly urge people to be very cautious about what they put on social media. It’s on the rise, but it isn’t just about teachers. It’s about pupils making inappropriate comments about staff and we have even seen poison campaigns from parents against staff.”

Suffolk County Council has had seven cases, all on Facebook. In 2008 offensive material was sent to by a staff member to colleagues and dealt with informally.

In 2009 inappropriate comments were made on Facebook and a final written warning was issue to the employee.

Two more cases of inappropriate comments took place in 2010, with one dealt with informally while in the other the employee resigned.

In 2011 a Facebook page and group was set up without following the council’s social media police and which allowed access to the page by service users. This was dealt with informally, as was a case of Facebook being used inappropriately.

A first written was also issued to a council employee after a Facebook petition was set up concerning a staff member.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital issued one warning in 2009-10, after a member of staff made some general comments on Facebook regarding patients, although no individual patients were named. The staff member involved was not dismissed.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn a porter invited a patient to become a friend on Facebook in 2010, having established details from their bed headboard.

In 2011 a radiography support staff member congratulated a patient on pregnancy on Facebook, having seen their outpatient record. In both cases staff were given a second stage formal warning.

The James Paget University Hospital has had just one case, in 2011, which led to an employee being dismissed. It involved “highly inappropriate language and comments placed on Facebook, some of which were felt to bring the trust into disrepute”.

The West Suffolk Hospital has had two instances involving Facebook in the past five years. Both were reported by colleagues and formal action was taken.

In February 2011 a Norfolk police constable posted an inappropriate comment on Facebook about the behaviour of a

member of public at a crime scene. The officer attended a misconduct meeting and received management advice.

In May 2011 a police sergeant made inappropriate comments, also on Facebook, about an internal matter and receive management advice.

In August 2011, a Norfolk Constabulary staff member made inappropriate comments on Facebook regarding their role and an internal policy issue. They attended a misconduct hearing and received a formal written warning.

All three matters have been as a result of notifications made to the force, which has an extensive social media policy, which warns staff to be careful of who they accept as ‘friends’, as they could be targeted as an employee of Norfolk Constabulary by criminals who wish to gain their trust, and then take advantage of that trust for criminal purposes.

The police also has advice and protocols for when negative or malicious postings have been made about officers or employees. On personal profiles, Norfolk Constabulary employees are asked to not use photographs of themselves in uniform, to avoid identifying themselves as an employee of the force or to discuss work in anything more than general terms.

One Suffolk police officer received management advice for an inappropriate comment on Twitter in 2009, while another police staff member received a formal disciplinary sanction for an inappropriate Facebook entry in 2010.

Another staff member was investigated for an inappropriate Facebook entry in 2011, however no further action was taken.

While many of the social media policies acknowledge that such sites can be used positively by staff both for work purposes and in their personal lives, they highlight the pitfalls which can occur.

Several organisations are still in the process of drafting their policies but Suffolk Constabulary’s warns that it can even include an employee’s online multiplayer game avatar or identity.

The force’s policy warns: “There have been examples where staff members have displayed photos of their homes, family members and vehicles, including index marks, which present opportunities for criminals to exploit vulnerabilities.”

It also warns that hostile groups could try to use certain information to counter police operations.

Both the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital’s social media policies include guidance on editing and making changes to online encyclopedias, such as the well-known Wikipedia site.

The QEH policy says: “If staff members edit online encyclopaedias at work the source of the correction may be recorded as a NHS Internet Protocol (IP) address. The intervention may therefore look as if it comes from the trust itself.”

It goes on to say: “If correcting an error about the trust, we must be transparent about who you are and the capacity in which you are doing this. We should never remove criticism of the trust.

“Instead, we should respond constructively to legitimate criticism. We should not remove derogatory or offensive comments but must report them to the relevant web administrators for them to take action.”

Suffolk Mental Health Partnership managers or staff reported one case in 2009 and four in 2010.

All took place on Facebook and the first involved inappropriate comments identifying a patient and led to a disciplinary and first written warning.

No formal action was taken in the other four instances, three of which involved inappropriate comments about a client’s death and one of which was about staff.

Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Foundation Trust had no cases between 2007 and 2010, but four in 2011.

One case on Twitter included inappropriate entries perceived to be of a bullying and harassing nature which led to dismissal, with an alternative of final written warning and downgrading offered.

Three cases on Facebook involved inappropriate posts with potential to bring the trust into disrepute. Two staff members were given final written warnings and one a verbal warning. All were reported by work colleagues.

The East of England Ambulance Service had two disciplinary investigations in 2009, two in 2010 and seven in 2011, all relating to information posted on Facebook.

In one case no action was taken, another seven resulted in an informal verbal warnings and three in a formal verbal warning.

NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney had no incident before November 2011, when one Facebook case was brought to the primary care trust’s attention by a member of the public named in the interface.

It involved two members of the community services clinical team, one of whom has now left their employment and concerning whose actions a report has been made to the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

The other member of staff has been served with a formal written warning.

North Norfolk District Council had one case relating to Facebook in 2010-11 and which led to a staff member’s dismissal.

At Waveney District Council one staff member used Facebook in 2010-11 to make disrespectful comment about a job role. This was detected through other members of staff and a verbal warning was issued.

Norwich City Council had two incidents, both in 2010, which involved posts on employees’ personal Facebook pages relating to comments made about the council or other employees. In each case the postings were brought to the attention of the employee’s manager by other employees.

The outcomes were an informal verbal warning and a first written warning.

It’s council computers are blocked to social network sites apart from excepted staff’s computers who need to access the council’s Facebook or Twitter accounts as part of their work, for example communications and events staff, with the communications team monitoring Twitter on a daily basis to see what comments are being made about the council and to respond accordingly.

There were no cases at NHS Norfolk, the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, South Norfolk Council, Broadland District Council, Breckland Council, Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, NHS Suffolk and Suffolk Community Healthcare,

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