Technical helpsheet highlighting key considerations for individuals and employers when using social media.
This helpsheet has been issued by ICAEW’s Technical Advisory Service to highlight key considerations for individuals and employers when using social media. This helpsheet is written for ICAEW members and practices and considers ethical issues under the ICAEW Code of Ethics.
Those responsible for compliance or marketing in practices may also find this helpsheet useful.
Members may also wish to refer to the following related helpsheets/guidance:
Social media continues to be popular and members and practices should understand the opportunities and risks associated with social media. The prevalence of social media has brought with it the expectation that it is included in personal as well as business relationships and activities.
Social media includes any online platform that gives the member a profile and a voice. It includes not only websites and applications such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and YouTube, but also any website of a practice, any blog, wiki page, commentary on any article or posting by another, participation in any forum or online community - in fact any written material accessible online could be classified as social media.
Some channels may be more suitable for personal use; others more suited for businesses. This can, and has changed over time. This blurring of boundaries between personal and professional use brings with it new challenges. The use of smartphones and other portable devices can heighten risks - for example through immediate responses to a tweet, predictive text and a mixture of personal and business social media accounts on a single device.
Benefits of social media
Social media does have positive benefits, for example the ability for members to share experiences and engage in debate - globally if necessary. It can be used to raise someone’s profile and can be used to influence others using more traditional as well as emerging methods.
The ICAEW code of ethics
The ICAEW Code of Ethics applies to all members of ICAEW (which for the purposes of the Code also includes affiliates, provisional members, foundation qualification holders, provisional foundation qualification holders and employees of a member firm or an affiliate) and member firms where relevant. These are referred to in the ICAEW Code of Ethics as ‘professional accountants’.
Paragraph R1.2 of the ICAEW Code of Ethics confirms professional accountants must adhere to the fundamental principles and specific requirements of the ICAEW Code of Ethics in all of their professional and business activities whether carried out with or without reward and in other circumstances where to fail to do so would bring discredit to the profession.
Whilst the code makes no specific provision with respect to the use of social media, the fundamental principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour apply nevertheless.
Considerations for individuals
Social media can be used personally as well as professionally. The boundaries between personal and professional are often not clear. Professional accountants should be aware that the same ethical obligations that apply offline also apply online.
There are a wide range of matters individuals should consider when using social media, even in their private lives, particularly where their status as a chartered accountant is known or discoverable. This helpsheet can’t address all of them, however aims to highlight a selection of key considerations.
The dangers of social media
The danger of social media is that it can lull us into a false sense of security about who can see what is posted online. Information shared with contacts or friends online or information posted about individuals by others may be open to all.
Whilst on many platforms, posts can be deleted or have privacy settings applied, it is important to remember that others may still have access to them, either through out of date privacy settings or for example if they have taken screenshots. Posts on social media can and are frequently used as evidence for legal or disciplinary action.
It is highly recommended that individuals review the content of personal social media channels, update privacy settings and where able to, remove information that they are no longer comfortable with.
What does the employer say?
Individuals should check their employer’s social media policy (if applicable) and IT policy for any specific provisions regarding the use of social media both within and outside of the work environment.
Whilst employers can’t usually stop their staff from using social media in their personal life, many request that staff do not disclose the name of their employer on social media, include restrictions on what can be posted in relation to their work and/or restricting the use of social media on work devices.
Individuals should regularly check their privacy settings on social media to ensure that posts are only visible to those they wish to share them with and to ensure other settings are as desired. This does not mean that information posted online will always be restricted, often some social media sites and posts are open to the public.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published guidance on Social media privacy settings which includes instructions on changing privacy settings on a number of popular platforms. Individuals are responsible for adjusting the privacy settings of their social media accounts.
Social media account security
Others will presume that messages from an individual’s social media accounts represent them. Individuals should ensure that suitable security measures protecting their account are in place. Many social media sites will provide additional authentication controls to increase account security. If an individual remains logged in however, for example on a smartphone or a browser on a PC, then others who have access to that device may also have access to their social media accounts without additional authentication checks.
Individuals should be mindful of social media applications that automatically share data (e.g. location), which may accidently disclose confidential information such as a client relationship.
Preservation of information online
There is an ongoing debate as to whether information is ever deleted online. Social media sites may not always make removing data particularly easy.
In cases where false information has been posted about an individual or practice online, specialist legal advice may be required to aid in getting it deleted.
Whist there are many pitfalls that should be avoided, individuals should have particular regard to the following:
Professional accountants should consider the principle of confidentiality. Using social media can increase the risk of confidential information being disclosed inadvertently. Others may be able to make connections between an individual’s personal and business accounts.
- Criticism and defamation
Professional accountants may, for example, write a robust negative review of a service badly performed by a business - but individuals should take care not to name or criticise employers, clients, colleagues or employees at other businesses either directly or indirectly. Such naming may amount to a breach of the fundamental principle of confidentiality and, if abusive (e.g. sexist, racist or otherwise amount to harassment), unprofessional conduct. Defamation may also apply to comments or opinions posted on social media sites.
- Acting with integrity and professional behaviour
Professional accountants should not use fake names/pseudonyms or otherwise try to conceal their identify as a means to provide abusive commentary. This would be inconsistent with the fundamental principle of integrity as well as amounting to unprofessional behaviour. Fake accounts can usually be traced back to the author or owner.
- Inappropriate language or offensive posts
Professional accountants should avoid using derogatory language or words that harass or victimise and avoid posts which could be considered offensive. Professional accountants can engage in a robust exchange but there comes a point, usually driven by frustration, where the language or sentiment may spill over into the unacceptable and abusive. Such language would rarely be consistent with the fundamental principle of professional behaviour whether used in a personal or business context.
- Inappropriate behaviour
Posting to social media examples of individuals (or the accountant themselves) behaving inappropriately may breach the fundamental principle of professional behaviour if they are linked to the professional accountant who is known or identified as such.
- Adversarial stances
It can be acceptable (to the extent that it is not offensive, shocking or threatening) for a professional accountant to take an adversarial stance to the laws of the land and professional standards and guidance. Indeed every accounting standard has a dissenting view but that does not mean the standard as published does not prevail as the way to account for the matter addressed.
- Committing illegal or offensive acts
Committing an illegal act, acting in contravention of professional guidance or inadvertently admitting to doing something that one should not be doing (even if unknowingly) is likely to amount to a breach the fundamental principle of professional behaviour and/or professional competence.
It is worth noting that inappropriate use of social media / electronic communications is an example of a matter which is likely to constitute misconduct relating to a member’s personal activities and may need to be reported under the ICAEW duty to report misconduct.
This would include the making and publishing of racist, homophobic or other offensive comments, or the sharing of offensive material. It will not include instances where the member has made a point forcefully in a heated debate without any offensive content in the comment made. For more information, please refer to the ICAEW Guidance on the duty to report misconduct.
Social media and personal brand
Despite all the concerns and potential pitfalls, individuals may be able to use social media to their advantage. It can be a useful way to make contacts and hear about new roles and positions to assist with career progression.
Individuals should consider how they will maintain the accuracy of their information on social media sites. For example, do professional networking sites correctly list their current role, employer or professional qualifications?
Additional considerations for practices
Many of the same considerations for individuals also apply to practices. Business members may also find the points raised of interest. Social media gives rise to additional considerations for practices which need to consider both the actions of their employees and their own use of social media.
Practices may also choose to adopt internally business-orientated social media tools (e.g. Yammer or corporate blogs). These can be an effective tool for innovation, collaboration and communication.
Managing the practice’s social media
Social media can be an effective marketing tool for the promotion of a practice’s services and generates opportunities to deliver targeted marketing messages. Additional tips and guidance on Marketing your practice are available.
Practices using social media should take time to develop a strategy for their use of social media. Setting the right goals will help them measure successes and which online tactics are working. This makes it much easier to scale their social media presence. Practices also need to maintain social media activity which can include additional costs such as staff time, training, tools and paid advertising. Outside experts and social media tools are widely available to support businesses, although firms must remember that they are ultimately responsible for anything published in their own name (even if outsourced).
Practices may wish to look at industry research such as ICAEWROAR which is a project scoping the social landscape of accountancy aiming to identify accountancy Influencers online.
Practices should consider how they will handle feedback received online – positive and negative. See the helpsheet on online reviews for further guidance.
Practice owners should also understand what controls over access rights are available to delegate and restrict access by staff to the practice’s social media accounts.
Generating and delivering content
There are several ways in which practices can generate content on social media including creating original content, engaging with followers to create their own content as well curating content through a third party provider. If a third-party is managing the practice’s social media, their output should be monitored.
Social media can be used effectively to enable business growth. When using social media for marketing purposes, practices should ensure that they adhere to paragraphs R115.2 to R115.3 of the ICAEW Code of Ethics. Further guidance on marketing is available in the Marketing helpsheet.
When creating online relationships with clients or prospective clients practices may need to consider the principle of confidentiality. For example, does the connection on social media or a specific post disclose a confidential client relationship?
IT and social media policy
Practices should have in place IT security policies and a specific policy on social media if they don’t already have them (the ICAEW Library and Information Service has access to a wide range of resources including an example IT policy incorporating the use of social media). A social media policy should cover such things as recruitment, bullying, harassment, defamation, data protection and privacy. It may also include which channels are approved to be used by the business for social media and guidance for employees on how using social media may reflect on them personally as well as the practice.
Practices may introduce additional safeguards to prevent accidental posting of personal content onto the practice’s social media pages, such as dedicated social media management software in addition to separate ‘work’ or ‘business’ profiles on dedicated hardware. Review plans are also good practice to see what is being posted on social media about the firm and its employees.
It is usually insufficient to just have a social media policy. Practices should also consider training and support for those who use social media as part of the role as well as staff in the organisation about good practice when it comes to social media.
Mistakes will happen. Practices should develop a response plan for any incident involving social media, and ensure staff know about it. It is best to nominate an individual in the organisation to be responsible for managing the process and any incident.
ACAS offers practical guidance for employers on social media in the workplace. Its guidance covers:
- Social media in recruitment;
- Social media in performance management;
- Disciplinary and grievance in respect of social media; and
- Cyber bullying.
Recruitment and selection
Employers need to take extreme care when reviewing a candidate’s social media profile as part of the recruitment and selection process as it may be considered discriminatory and could fall foul of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Employers could face an employment tribunal for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if they discount a potential candidate as a result of judgements based on information, discovered via social media, relating to the potential candidate’s age, sex, disability, race, marital status, sexual orientation, religion or belief.
Additional issues arise under the GDPR as an employer being able to see a candidate’s social media account(s) does not necessarily mean it has the candidate’s consent to take it into account when making a recruitment decision and it may be difficult to justify another appropriate lawful basis for processing. For more guidance on the different lawful bases for processing see the helpsheet UK GDPR – Lawful basis for processing.
Social media can be really beneficial for both individuals and practices if used appropriately and if the fundamental principles contained within the ICAEW Code of Ethics are adhered to. If members or practices are on social media, they can connect with the ICAEW networks, groups and communities.
If in doubt seek advice
ICAEW members, affiliates, ICAEW students and staff in eligible firms with member firm access can discuss their specific situation with the Ethics Advisory Service on +44 (0)1908 248 250 or via webchat.
© ICAEW 2021 All rights reserved.
ICAEW cannot accept responsibility for any person acting or refraining to act as a result of any material contained in this helpsheet. This helpsheet is designed to alert members to an important issue of general application. It is not intended to be a definitive statement covering all aspects but is a brief comment on a specific point.
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For further details members are invited to telephone the Technical Advisory Service T +44 (0)1908 248250. The Technical Advisory Service comprises the technical enquiries, ethics advice, anti-money laundering and fraud helplines. For further details visit icaew.com/tas.
- 23 Dec 2020 (02: 50 PM GMT)
- Changelog created, helpsheet converted to new template
- 23 Dec 2020 (02: 51 PM GMT)
- Changes to section headed Considerations for indivuduals. Section headed If in doubt seek advice updated
- 18 Oct 2021 (09: 33 AM BST)
- Link to guidance 'Boundaries of personal and professional life in ethics' added. Other links updated.