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Social media - wake up call from Acas

Tuesday 06 September 2011

Acas Senior Guidance Editor, Adrian Wakeling, talks about social media in the workplace

The power of social media to rapidly organise large groups of people - as seen in England's riots and subsequent clean up - presents new challenges for industrial relations as well as public order.

A new report from employment relations experts Acas shows that social networking has already directly influenced how some industrial disputes have been conducted.

The accessibility and speed of tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean that workers can be mobilised more quickly than ever. They can also make it easier to collaborate with other campaign or interest groups.

The report Social media and its impact on employers and trade unions cites the East Lindsey Refinery disputes where much of the organising was done via websites, such as and SMS / text messaging. This enabled a local dispute to spread to over 20 other construction sites across the country overnight.

Protests by UK Uncut and anarchists during the TUC demonstration in March of this year saw large amounts of organising and campaigning carried out through social media.

The paper also says that parties involved in Acas talks must be able to have free and open discussions without the details being broadcast more widely. Inappropriate use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook can threaten this traditional stronghold of privacy.

Acas Chief Conciliator, and co-author of the report, Peter Harwood said:

    "Social media is already changing the conduct of industrial disputes. The spread 
    of digital activism leads to a bigger impact, but it also presents trade unions, 
    employers and the authorities with more volatile demonstrations and means it's 
    tougher to control action that involves disparate but well organised groups.

    "I have actually sat in talks where one of the parties has been tweeting about 
    them. It is the speed, immediacy and reach of social media tools that 
    distinguish them from other forms of communication and can threaten both 
    confidentiality and carefully communicating the outcome of Acas talks."

Although social media presents real challenges it also offers opportunities for organisations to engage with employees.

Co-author Stuart Smith said:

    "Many organisations are now beginning to use social media tools to engage with 
    their workforce. However, the adoption of this varies from organisation to 
    organisation and from function to function. Corporate functions such as HR have 
    often been slower to grasp the implications of social media on their world than 
    say marketing or communication departments."

There are also opportunities for trade unions to use social networking to rapidly organise members in different locations when reps are thinly spread and struggle to maintain the direct personal contact that previously existed, according to the report.

Underlining the importance of getting industrial relations right in the first place, the Chief Conciliator added:

    "Social media can pose new problems but the solutions are still from the old 
    school - prevention is better than cure. It is essential that employers, managers, 
    and trade union representatives improve communication and engagement, so 
    that potential issues that may cause conflict are aired and listened to and early 
    action taken."

The paper, with its focus on social media and collective industrial relations, follows a research report commissioned by Acas and published last week. Workplaces and social networking - the implications for Employment Relations was written by the Institute for Employment Studies and focused on employee use of social media and managers' response.

Both papers form the basis for Acas guidance on managing the use of social media in the workplace

Notes for editors

1. Social media and its impact on employers and trade unions can be viewed here

2. Acas' aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. It is an independent statutory body governed by a Council consisting of the Acas Chair and employer, trade union and independent members.

3. "Social media" is the broad term given to describe the latest generation of internet and web based communication platforms where users can rapidly connect and interact in a variety of different formats. A social media site allows for User-Generated Content (UGC) to emerge through interactions and collaborations in a virtual community. This contrasts with the websites where users are limited to the passive viewing of content.

4. Social media facts and figures:

  • In May 2011, British Facebook traffic surpassed that of Microsoft's websites, making it the most frequented website in the UK after Google, according to the online measurement body UKOM/Nielsen.
  • Facebook has over 500 million users and more than30 billion pieces of content being shared each month including web links, news stories, blog posts and photo albums.
  • Twitter reported in March 2011 that some 500,000 new Twitter accounts are created each day, and that one billion 'tweets' are now written each week.
  • The video sharing website YouTube reported that more than 13 million hours of video were uploaded to their site during 2010 and 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute. It reached over 700 billion playbacks in 2010.

For media enquiries only and too interview Peter Harwood or Stuart Smith call the Acas press office on 020 7210 3920.