Employment law specialist Ben Doherty of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that many office policies are written with only email use and website access in mind and need to be updated.
"It used to be about what people viewed in the office, not what they did at home," he said. "But anyone can be a publisher now, at work or at home, and office policies sometimes overlook that. They're too focused on Web 1.0 sites."
The warning follows news that 18 officers of the Metropolitan Police were subject to formal discipline proceedings for using Facebook to brag about car crashes. They were members of a group on the social networking site called "Look I've had a Polcol". Polcol is slang for police collision.
The Telegraph has reproduced photographs from the Facebook group. One shows a uniformed officer smiling at the camera and giving a thumbs-up next to a wrecked patrol car. The newspaper claims that the group had more than 200 members and contained stories about collisions with pedestrians. The group has since been closed down.
The Met Police told OUT-LAW that 14 officers were given written warnings and four were given words of advice.
"The behaviour of those individuals clearly fell short of that high standard expected and were subject to the appropriate action," she said. "Clear guidance was circulated to all staff in July 2007 stating that such behaviour leaves officers and staff open to allegations/complaints of unprofessionalism. The MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] is clear that the conduct of all staff, whether on or off duty, must meet a high standard."
A section of the Met Police policy was sent to OUT-LAW. It warns that MPS personnel "must not use MPS systems to author, transmit or store documents such as electronic mail (e-mail) messages or attachments … containing racist, homophobic, sexist, defamatory, offensive, illegal or otherwise inappropriate material".
Doherty said that policies need not be limited to the use of office systems. "It's important to make sure that your staff understand they should conduct themselves appropriately at all times, not just during office hours and not just on office systems."
"Policies can make this clear by addressing the use of blogs or social networking sites out of hours, to help staff understand that when they post content to the internet that could identify them, they should do so in a manner that's consistent with their contract of employment," he said.
Doherty said that if a policy is too prescriptive and focused on the sites accessed from a work computer, taking action against errant Facebook users might be more difficult.
"Staff should be aware that if their out-of-work activity causes potential embarrassment for the employer or detrimentally effects the employer's reputation then the employer is entitled to take disciplinary action," he said. "But while employers can always take action against a member of staff for bringing them into disrepute, a good policy that's properly communicated to the workforce can make any disciplinary process far easier, less risky and less controversial in the workplace."
Doherty said that such policies should identify certain behaviour as gross misconduct. "That makes it much easier to dismiss employees who break the rules, substantially lowering the risk of unfair dismissal claims before tribunals."
"Employees should also be aware that more employers now spend time monitoring sites such as Facebook for information about their staff and any comments about the employer. Accordingly it is becoming more likely that the employer will find out about the misconduct."