Online etiquette: Professionals must bear in mind responsibilities

Online etiquette: Professionals must bear in mind responsibilities

When employees publish opinion and statements on social and other online mediums, they may be leaving themselves open to interpretation of codes of ethics and employment law

Online etiquette: Professionals must bear in mind responsibilities

As accountants embraced the remote-first office model in 2020, the standards of professionalism have shifted away from work attire and watercooler behaviour.

But as social media use is on the rise across the UK, employees must continue to consider how they are viewed professionally when using such channels.

“Just because somebody’s at home doesn’t mean that the standards of behaviour that you can expect of them should slip,” says Kirsty Ayre, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell. “You should expect the same standards as you would if they were in the office, and if they are slipping, if they are being inappropriate, then you need to deal with that.”

Employment law is slightly muddy around what can be defined as ‘appropriate’ for an employee to post online, Ayre says.

Those within the accounting industry must be wary that any content posted online—whether anonymously or carrying their name—which is interpreted as inappropriate can lead to job loss, discreditation and the loss of future potential.

Online behaviour standards will vary between firms, and personal opinions are not a direct reason to dismiss an employee. However, John Palmer, a senior guidance adviser at Acas, emphasised that posting certain content may inevitably carry that consequence.

“The workplace impact of people sharing their political views will depend on a number of factors, like if the employee is posting in a way that makes them appear to be representing the company or if the post is likely to be discriminatory or offensive to employees or customers,” Palmer said via email.

Many UK-based accountants would have already agreed to follow a particular code of conduct and ethics as part of their accreditation process.

The ACCA’s code of ethics, for example, places industry importance on integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour, in which members “shall avoid any action that may discredit the profession.”

Sundeep Takwani, director of regulatory relations at ACCA, says that both on and off-the-clock misconduct from an accountant can lead to the loss of membership accreditation, in addition to any employer-specific discipline.

“If you’ve made a comment on [social media] which causes offense and someone works out that you’re a member of ACCA, then they would have a right to complain about you, and we would look at that,” Takwani says, adding that other accountancy bodies have similar protocols.

While following professional online behaviour guidelines isn’t an accountancy-only problem, Takwani reiterates that accountants hold a particular level of responsibility that demands professionality.

Multiple employment lawyers have reiterated the importance of firms establishing clear social media and conduct policies, with considerations around how an employee’s behaviour impacts the firm’s employees and overall reputation.

“Once an issue is spotted, address it but keep in mind the overriding requirement in employment law to act reasonably,” James Tamm, director of legal services at law firm Ellis Whittam, said via email. “It’s important to try and see things from the employee’s perspective, so find out why they have acted in a certain way before jumping in with both feet.

“It may be that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever has happened which can be addressed without formal procedures. Of course, there may not, and that’s when your policies around misconduct or performance management will come into play.”

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