Recent cases have put the current vogue for social networking websites under scrutiny. Jo Carlowe reports on how nurses can use social networking sites safely
How to use social networking sites safely
In an unprecedented move the NMC recently published advice for nurses on the use of social networking sites such as Facebook. The action comes as an acknowledgement of the potential for such sites to blur the boundaries between personal and professional life.
‘The NMC would like to remind nurses and midwives that they are personally accountable for their actions at all times, including how they behave in their personal life,’ says the statement posted on the NMC website at the end of 2008.
Specifically referring to social networking, the regulator advises: ‘What may be considered to be letting off steam about a situation at work can potentially be read by someone who may take offence at the content of a posting. Nurses and midwives could be putting their registration at risk if posting inappropriate comments about colleagues or patients or posting any material that could be considered explicit.’
An NMC spokesperson says the advice was prompted, not by social networking itself, but by press interest when the names of at least four registered nurses appeared on a list of supposed members of the far-right British National Party, which was circulated widely on the internet. The case was something of a wake-up call – demonstrating that the public judges some professionals not just by their demeanour at work but also by the behaviour and values that they demonstrate in their personal lives.
The advice is timely. Last year staff at Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust were banned from using social networking sites after a nurse appeared on Facebook in ‘a revealing pose’. The picture inadvertently showed a patient in the background and as a consequence two members of staff no longer work forthe trust and the social networking site ban is still in force.
In another case, a nurse in Sweden was suspended from her job after posting photos of herself on a social networking site holding a lump of flesh during a brain operation. While in Canada nurses were disciplined for spending too long on Facebook during working hours.
Publicity surrounding cases that involve social networking is rife. Outside of nursing, there are numerous examples. Of particular note was the case of a banker who lost his job after claming he needed time off for a ‘family emergency’ only to be spotted on Facebook, drunk at a Halloween party, dressed as a fairy.
In February last year, a police inspector in charge of guarding the Queen lost out on a promotion after revealing intimate details about his sex life on Facebook, while Crystal Palace footballer Ashley-Paul Robinson embarrassed his club by posting a message on the site saying he was having a trial with Fulham FC.
The potential for disgrace or harm is all too evident. No wonder then that many NHS trusts have blocked Facebook even in the absence of any provocation.
Sian Thomas, director of NHS Employers, says this is reasonable.
‘Staff in the NHS have a duty to maintain public confidence. This can mean not being distracted by things like social networking sites, so it is perfectly appropriate for employers to have a position on this and to block social networking at work. There is no national policy on this – it is a judgement to be taken locally.’
But Gail Adams, Unison’s head of nursing, thinks a blanket ban is too stringent. ‘We can’t have staff accessing Facebook when they are supposedto be watching a patient on ventilation but people have to use their judgement – if you are on an eight-hour shift and spend six of them on Facebook then that is not acceptable but if during a coffee break you check something out online or it’s a quiet period then there is no harm in it,’ she says.
‘You have to have some faith in people to assume that they won’t abuse that judgement,’ she adds.
She points out that networking sites have helped nurses to become more skilled in using IT. Moreover, she says social networking is of particular benefit to staff on a career break.
‘If anything it actually makes it easier for these nurses to feel more in touch for when they return,’ she says.
Nonetheless, in the absence of national guidance, many trusts have opted for a total ban.
‘We don’t feel it is appropriate for our staff to use social networking sites for any reason during their working hours so the sites are restricted on all trust computers,’ says Tracey Ellery, director of finance at the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust.
Her response is typical, although it may have been prompted by recent events.
In 2007 mental health nurse and Unison branch secretary Karen Reissmann was dismissed by the trust for publicly challenging its policies. A group was set up on Facebook and over 800 people joined it to support Ms Reissmann’s legal battle against the trust. Similar campaigning groups have sprung up on the site in support of other nurses who are in dispute with their employers.
It is an interesting development – once again demonstrating how the personal and professional can become confused via the use of social networking.
So what are the rules on this? Can nurses join pressure groups on sites such as Facebook with impunity or will their employers take a dim view of this?
At Ms Reissmann’s trust, the directors say everyone has ‘a right to free speech and expression’, but Ms Ellery warns: ‘In exercising this right staff employed bythe trust need to make sure their activity on such sites doesn’t damage their own professional reputation or that of the trust.’
Ms Thomas takes a similar view, urging nurses to be up to date with the usual rules that apply when speaking out.
‘We are a democracy. We cannot stop people using these sites, however people tend to write things on social networking sites or email that they would not say. People need to think about the libel laws and confidentiality issues,’ she says.
‘Employers have their policies and employees have their rights, so you could never say there is a blanket answer on this. It is tricky territory but employees should ask themselves the questions: “What image am I giving the public about myself and my organisation?” before posting anything,’ she adds.
She emphasises that, if in doubt, nurses should always double-check. ‘Likewise they should check the policies and procedures of their organisation to ensure that they are not in breach of anything, especially if they decide to wear their uniform on such sites. Employers will have made it clear they will have a specific policy about wearing of uniforms this will be in their written professional code.’
Ms Adams urges trusts to draw up guidelines with their local staff-sides.
‘This needs to be done jointly, so that it is not like Big Brother is watching you,’ she says.
Ms Thomas does acknowledge that the whole issue of social networking is a ‘grey area’ that potentially leaves both nurses and managers floundering.
‘The innovation is currently way aheadof the governance that needs to be behind it,’ she says.
Because of this, many suspect that it is only a matter of time before the issue is tested in a high publicity case either via the courts or at a conduct committee.
And yet the NMC has no further plans to strengthen its current advice on the matter.
A spokesperson for the regulator summed it up: ‘I don’t think one can put official guidance out on this as there are as many scenarios as there are people.
‘People have to use thier own judgment. Nurses are professional, intelligent, educated and quite cabable of thinking for themselves. What it comes down to is people taking a degree of personal responsibility in and out of the workplace.’
Related article on NursingTimes.net ‘Can you ask a mentor or a patient’s relative to be your friend on Facebook?’