Wednesday, 23 January 2013

We've moved!

Thanks for visiting this blog. We've moved though. We're now blogging at Thanks for your continued interest, and hopefully you'll continue to check out our posts at their new home

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Social media and the workplace: you need a policy

By Alana Jones, Senior Partner with Jones Cassidy Jones Solicitors

Social media can be a powerful tool for many businesses, enabling them to engage directly with their customers and other stakeholders in an immediate, personal and targeted way. This is to be welcomed and encouraged. But employers also need to be conscious of the risks that social media can present.

For one, the personal use of social media during working time impacts on productivity. Other more serious risks include reputational damage, breach of confidentiality, breach of security, defamatory comments, unlawful discrimination and the risk of cyber bullying and harassment.

Indeed, an employee’s use of social media may have serious legal repercussions for your business, and the implementation of a social media policy is therefore a necessary risk management tool.

But what should a social media policy include?

Firstly, the policy should address whether or not the use of social media is banned in the workplace. If it is not banned, the policy should set out what access to social media is allowed and when access is permitted. If access is to be restricted, the precise restrictions must be stated. The policy should explain the employer’s monitoring of the use of social media sites. Wholesale monitoring will not be appropriate and should be in accordance with data protection principles.

There should also be clear guidelines for interaction with social media at all times, since usage in private time can also cause damage to a business.  It is important for the policy to address the non-disclosure of confidential information and to underline the necessity of ensuring that the use of social media does not bring the employer into disrepute.

The policy should also instruct employees not to make any derogatory, false or discriminatory comments about the business and its clients and employees. Employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of employees. It is incumbent upon an employer to take reasonable steps to protect its workers against discrimination and harassment from colleagues, even if this occurs outside the workplace and outside working hours.

Perhaps the strongest message needing conveyed by a social media policy is that employees should be mindful that anything posted online via social media is likely to be available for public consumption; there should be no expectation of privacy. If it would not be appropriate to publish your comments in a newspaper, don’t post them online.

It is important the employer’s social media policy warns that contravention of the policy may lead to disciplinary action and potential dismissal. The case of Preece -v- JD Wetherspoons involved the dismissal of a pub manager who made derogatory comments on Facebook about two customers. The employer’s disciplinary policy cited ‘bringing the company’s name into disrepute’ as an example of gross misconduct, and the internet and email policy stated that disciplinary action could be taken if blogging damaged the company’s reputation. Ms Preece contended that her comments could only be viewed by 40-50 friends, but a tribunal dismissed her claim of unfair dismissal, concluding that the employer’s response was justified due to reputational damage.  

In contrast, in Whitham - v - Ventura, the tribunal upheld Ms Whitham’s unfair dismissal claim. She had posted comments on Facebook criticising working conditions and colleagues. The employer dismissed the employee as it was concerned about potential damage to its relationship with its main client, but it had not sought the views of the client, nor considered alternatives to dismissal, such as demotion. When considering dismissal, the employer should consider carefully the specific circumstances and the proportionality of the penalty. 

The effective implementation of the social media policy is key. This is likely to entail distribution and display of the policy and the provision of training to ensure that it has been explained and is understood. An employer who disciplines an employee for acting in breach of a social media policy which has not been communicated effectively is on shaky ground.

Finally, once you have your social media policy in place, it is also essential to regularly review your policy to check that it reflects the changes taking place in the fast-changing social media world.

Jones Cassidy Jones is a niche employment law firm based on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.

NI housing market explained

A fascinating and comprehensive insight into Northern Ireland's housing market in this presentation by our client Richard Ramsey (@ramseconomics on Twitter). Did you know that Northern Ireland is building fewer homes per capita than at any time since 1949? Or that the value of NI residential property transactions has fallen from £7billion per annum in 2007 to £1.26bn today? These are just a couple of the many nuggets in there.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

13 NI journalists you might want to follow on Twitter in 2013

By Chris Harrison, JPR

If you want a good spread of NI news, views, business and politics, you could do worse than follow this lot. There are, of course, lots of other good journalist tweeters. Let me know who you think should be on the list.
            1. @Jamie_UTV
            2. @JimFitzBiz
            3. @CollettaSmith
            4. @MarkDevenport
            5. @KenReid_UTV
            6. @BelTel
            7. @hackedoffhack
            8. @SMcC_TheDetail
            9. @BBCmarksimpson
            10. @MarcMallett_UTV
            11. @MickFealty
            12. @mofitzmaurice
            13. @dhendersonpa

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

10 ways for small firms to enhance their PR and social media presence in 2013

By Chris Harrison, JPR
Just some of the accessible ways your small business can enhance its profile in 2013.

  1. Social media is becoming more and more a ‘visual’ experience; embrace it. Users expect it. Pinterest and Instagram are amongst the fastest growing social media platforms, and Facebook has become ‘the image appreciation society’. Look at how Barrack Obama uses infographics to deliver his message and ask how you can use imagery to do the same.
  2. Facebook has put in place new measures to limit how many of your page’s followers see your posts organically. You need to find ways around this. You can pay for key posts to be seen by all your followers. Even better – use creative images and ask your followers to share them.
  3. Use your smartphone to take some nice images for your blog. Make them quirky and build up a stock of them to use, and reuse. It will help set your blog apart from competitors’.
  4. If you have slide presentations, use Slideshare to share them. You can grab code from Slideshare and embed your presentations into your blog to help illustrate your blog posts.
  5. If you are a B2B business, make sure you have a LinkedIn page. More and more people are using LinkedIn, and new profile and page designs are helping. Business journalists are also increasingly moving to LinkedIn to research stories.
  6. Google Plus may not have become the Facebook-killer many thought it might be, and indeed many are walking away, but don’t forget that your Google search results will be influenced by your Google Plus activity. A strong presence on Google Plus can really boost your search results.
  7. Make sure your web presence works well on mobile – not just in terms of design, but also content. You need to be punchy and succinct in the mobile world. Brevity is essential.
  8. Doing something interesting? Record a short clip of yourself talking about it on your smartphone or tablet and email it with your press release to your local radio stations (or upload to Audioboo and email a link). Local radio stations are increasingly stretched and welcome good audio content provided to them. But make sure the recording is informative and isn’t ‘pluggy’.
  9. Are you launching a new product that needs demonstrating? Why not record a short, professional product demonstration video and upload to YouTube to provide to relevant blogs and news websites to use. Also send it to relevant journalists with your press release who might be convinced to write/report about the product by seeing it in action.
  10. Want to provide media with a series of photos? Why not use flickr rather than emailing lots of large files. Sign up and create a ‘set’ of your images and email a link with your press release inviting journalists to download them. (Check your licensing settings.)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Will we start 2013 with a bit more confidence?

By David McNellis, Director, Lisney

It was hard to know which way to turn last Wednesday as the UK Chancellor presented his Autumn Statement and the Irish Government announced its Budget for 2013 on the same day.

South of the border it was a new property tax that led the news agenda. This will see home owners taxed 0.18% of the value of a home, up to 1m euros. This was part of a fresh package of spending cuts and tax rises worth billions.

In the UK, a further squeeze on benefits was one of the main items in the Autumn Statement. This is expected to hit Northern Ireland hardest because of the relatively larger proportion of the population here claiming benefits.

On the positive side, there was additional money for infrastructure which will lead to an additional £130million for Northern Ireland in capital spending.

But, perhaps the most significant aspect of the Autumn Statement was the revelation that austerity in the UK will be extended to 2018 as the UK deficit now won’t be eradicated by the Chancellor’s intended target date.

In the context of further austerity measures in Ireland and the UK, it is clear that the Northern Ireland economy faces significant challenges as economies that it relies heavily on for trade face spending cuts. For this reason, 2013 promises to be another challenging year for Northern Ireland, and the property sector. But will it be as bad as 2012?

When we look at the statistics available, it is clear that the problems in the Eurozone, the indebtedness of many people in the local property sector, the unavailability of finance, a lack of business confidence, and trends in the retail sector, including a high level of administrations, have had a significant impact this year.

The challenges of the retail sector have been well covered. The percentage of vacant shops in Northern Ireland is at 19% - that’s one in four shops lying empty. This was confirmed recently by figures from the British Retail Consortium. This has increased substantially on 2011, further widening the gap with the UK average of 11.4%.

Unprecedented levels of retail administration and resulting store closures have had a major effect. The high level of business rates in prime locations remains a major issue for retailers. Demand remains thin, and even the discount retailers who were very active will be taking fewer new stores as they are now well represented here.

The occupational office market remains challenging and is not being helped by a weak short term outlook in the UK and broader European economies. In many cases expansion or relocation plans have been put on hold until the picture becomes clearer, but any active demand that has arisen has tended to focus on the better quality stock and in the stronger locations. Take-up of space remains very low, despite rents remaining very competitive at around £12 per sq m. Take-up of office space in Dublin is about six times that of Belfast.

The industrial sector also remains in a very challenging place. There is little demand, with about 16% of space in key industrial locations vacant. There is also a lack of supply due to the lack of available finance and unattractive market, leading to little development taking place. In the case of some prominent industrial buildings that have been sold, the price achieved has been lower than the combined cost of buying the land and building the unit. This scenario makes development unviable.

When it comes to investment, the continued illiquidity, lower occupational demand and investor caution has led to drops in both rental and capital values throughout most types of commercial property. This had led to much inactivity in the market place.

The next couple of weeks will be important in determining what the future holds for the Northern Ireland economy, with an announcement expected following the Prime Minister’s deliberations about Northern Ireland’s plea for powers to set its own corporation tax rate. The hope is that the decision will be positive for Northern Ireland and that we can begin the new year planning with a bit more confidence about the years ahead.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Important Christmas shopping season well under way

By Richard Ramsey, Chief Economist, Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank

The festive season is fast approaching with many of us bracing ourselves to hit the high street, both real and virtual. Indeed, for some, that day or days may thankfully already be behind us. After all, last week was ‘Cyber Monday’, which is traditionally one of the busiest online shopping days of the year. The term ‘Cyber Monday, originated in the United States and follows the annual Thanksgiving holiday and of course ‘Black Friday’.  The latter fires the starting pistol for the Christmas shopping season and represents the point at which retailers begin to make a profit, or start recording black ink as opposed to red. Similarly, for Northern Ireland retailers, the Christmas season will be ‘make or break’ for many businesses.

‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’ are American traditions that have crossed the Atlantic to Europe and the UK. Indeed, you may have already noticed that online retailers have been filling up your email inbox with promotions and discounts. Online shopping has grown in popularity in Northern Ireland and this trend is set to continue.  You only have to go to Belfast’s Tomb Street Post Office on a Saturday to witness the queues for parcel collections. Last month it is estimated that Northern Ireland consumers spent £50 million on online sales, an 11% increase on the November 2011 figure. Most of this £50 million will be going into tills beyond these shores.

Notwithstanding the opportunities that ecommerce offers local retailers to grow their markets outside Northern Ireland, the internet is a major and growing threat for local retailers. When it comes to cost and convenience the internet wins hands down. The computer screen provides the ultimate shop window for the frugal consumer with no car parking or public transport fares required.

Arguably a bigger concern for consumer sensitive sectors, however, is the deteriorating state of Northern Ireland’s household finances. Christmas is an expensive time of the year at the best of times. However, the cumulative impact of unemployment, inflation and pay cuts / freezes is taking its toll on households. For example, last week a survey revealed that 63% of Northern Ireland families struggle to meet their childcare costs either throughout the year or at some point during it.

As a child, I can remember receiving a £10 gift voucher from my aunt and uncle each Christmas. Initially I was amazed at how many toys and sports goods this voucher could buy.  As the years went by, and the £10 vouchers kept coming, it became increasingly apparent that the £10 bought fewer and fewer goods. In effect, my annual one-off income was static but the cost of toys and sports goods continued to rise. Clearly an inflation-linked gift voucher would have been the solution to this problem.

In a similar vein, this is what has happened to households since the downturn. For many households their gift vouchers (annual earnings) have been frozen for 4 years while the cost of goods and services has risen. Meanwhile others have seen the value of their gift vouchers reduced and the costs of goods rise. Finally, some individuals have seen their gift vouchers increase in value but not as much as the price increases in goods and services. Only the lucky few have seen annual earnings outpace inflation.

Last month’s Annual Survey of Hours & Earnings (ASHE) for 2012 alongside the official UK inflation figures put some numbers on these earlier scenarios. Since the UK recession officially began in Q2 2008, pay cuts and wage freezes have been commonplace within the private sector in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile UK consumer prices have increased by over 14% cumulatively between April 2008 and April 2012 (and even more since).  This compares with a cumulative rise in median earnings (for all employees part-time & full-time) of less than 3%. This represents a cut in real terms of 11%.

The overall figures conceal significant differences between the private and public sectors. Indeed, the median private sector wage in April 2012 was almost 3% lower than the corresponding level in 2008 before inflation is taken into account.  After inflation, Northern Ireland’s private sector posted a real terms cut of almost 17%.  One contributory factor behind this fall is the shift from full-time to part-time employment.

Full-time employees (all sectors) have fared rather better over the four years to April 2012. Indeed, the median public sector full-time employee wage managed to outpace inflation with a cumulative rise of over 17%. This made for a real terms increase of just over 3%. Meanwhile, the private sector median posted a real terms cut of over 10% in the four years to April 2012.

The squeeze on household incomes from unemployment, inflation and tax rises has poured red ink over the finances of many households in Northern Ireland.  In turn, this explains why one in five retail units are now vacant. With inflationary pressures expected to persist and further tax rises in the pipeline, it will be some time yet before households experience their own ‘Black Friday’.  That is, when their disposable incomes start to rise at a faster rate than their costs.