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VOL. 35 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 29, 2011

Social media in the workplace

Information, image at risk without established policies

By Joe Morris

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For every employee who’s using the office’s high-speed Internet connection to verify data and connect with customers, there’s another one posting outtakes from corporate memos to a joke website. Or worse.

When computers were introduced to the workplace, robust operating systems came with solitaire gaming software built in; employees had both a tool and an entertainment system from the start. With the introduction of the Internet, the options for productivity — and goofing off — soared.

Social Media’s Reach

According to Global Compliance, a company offering workplace programs and training, the online and workplace worlds continue to overlap at an increasing rate. Just how connected are they?

  • More than 75 percent of employees use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for business, a 15 percent rise since 2007.
  • Nearly 20 percent of companies have investigated the posting of confidential, sensitive or private information to a social network.
  • At least 8 percent of companies say they have terminated employees for organizational violations using social media.

Source: Global Compliance, Awareness Inc., Proofpoint

But it’s more than someone whiling away an otherwise normal afternoon on Facebook or reading political columns. Many employees who would never put their personal information on the Web have no issue at all doing so with their employers’ facts and figures. Many also feel compelled to list their bosses’ worst habits, or gripe about everything from a benefits-package change to a dirty break room. And that, whether it’s intentionally malicious or not, is where employers can have a multitude of problems, especially if they continue to treat the Internet in general, and social media in particular, as a passing fad.

“People are still talking like it’s this new thing,” says Lawrence Eastwood Jr., a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz who focuses his practice on employment and labor law and litigation. “There are more than 500 million users of Facebook, there’s Twitter, the blogosphere … this has become so omnipresent that it’s time for employers to get behind a set of policies to deal with it.”

Questions to ask when developing a social media policy:

  • Is there confidential information to protect?
  • Are there prohibitions on disclosure of company trade secrets, customer identities, company financial details and business performance, private information about company personnel, and information regarding planned acquisitions and future product launches?
  • Is there a prohibition on all uses of the brand-owner’s trademarks and logos without advance approval?
  • Are the restrictions narrow enough to avoid possible violations of the National Labor Relations Act?

Source: Larry Eastwood, a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

When he speaks to employers, Eastwood reminds them that people in general feel much less inhibited about what they say online than they do in person. He likens it to using an electronic megaphone with no thought to the consequences of what’s being broadcast.

And while everyone’s familiar with the former employee with an axe to grind — whole websites have sprung up around some industries — he says it’s much more than ratting out lousy bosses to the world at large.

Social Media Pluses

The online world holds many benefits for employees when it comes to employee recruitment and retention, and properly channeled employees can be of value in many ways:

  • Marketing through social media sites.
  • Encouraging employees to blog or comment about the company.
    Gathering information on job applicants and potential recruits.
  • Actively keeping tabs on current employees.
  • Keeping tabs on competitors.

Source: Larry Eastwood, a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

“The etiquette of blogging, tweeting, social networking, hasn’t matured at the same rate the media itself has, and so there’s no real ‘Miss Manners’ version of how to behave online that’s pervaded the culture,” he says.

“Now couple that with a culture of fierce independence and the feeling that privacy is precious, and you end up with a lot of workers who are saying things online, and taking stances, that they would never take in any other context. They will say things they would never say when talking to others at the water cooler, or at church. You bully a coworker, or reveal company secrets out with friends, you may get fired. Online, it doesn’t seem to matter.”

Social Media Policy Must-Have’s:

  • Prohibitions on all uses of social media that are disrespectful, inflammatory, offensive, dishonest, or damaging to the company’s reputation and business interests.
  • Content and posts should not include slurs, personal insults, obscenity or anything likely to tarnish the image of the company and its brands.
  • Require that employees who express their opinions after identifying themselves as company employees include disclaimers. For example: “The views expressed herein are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the company.”
  • Time, place, and manner restrictions.

Source: Larry Eastwood, a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

A look at the numbers involved reveals some staggering figures. A 2009 study by Nucleus Research of 237 office workers showed that 77 percent of them had a Facebook account, and two thirds of them used it while at work. And those who logged onto Facebook averaged around 15 minutes daily, even though the majority of them couldn’t define a clear business reason for doing it.

Based on that input, plus the fact that some of these people couldn’t or didn’t use Facebook anywhere else, the Nucleus study estimated that one in every 33 worker built their entire Facebook profile during work hours.

As much as employers might like to send that number southward, the simple fact is that people will go online during the day, even if it’s just to check personal email during the lunch hour.

Employers who rigorously control access to the Internet will end up with very unhappy employees, so Eastwood says it’s more about educating workers on company policies and then making sure those mandates are flexible enough to cover every contingency. That includes using employees as advocates for the company, in many cases.

“The Internet is a tool that can be used as well as abused at work,” he explains. “Larger companies with a very sophisticated footprint on the web and in the blogosphere should have a strategy for how they want their employees to present themselves in the social media network as it pertains to their jobs. It’s not just preventing people from speaking or telling them what to say. It’s a matter of making sure they don’t violate antitrust laws or worse by casually posting about what’s going on at work.”

Some companies use software that blocks specific types of sites, such as pornography, from even being searched by the office’s computer network. Those programs also can filter out other types of sites that employees should stay away from. For instance, if you’re an exporting firm, you might block sites emanating from countries that the U.S. State Department has forbidden U.S. companies to do business with, or those which are tagged as terrorist sponsors under the Patriot Act.

That said, employers need to strike a delicate balance between monitoring the online workplace and not standing behind employees’ shoulders.

“If they think every move is being watched, they will not work there very long,” Eastwood says. “So in addition to using software, also have training and policies so that people are aware of expectations, and also of what laws touch on the company’s activities.

“You might have someone who blogs on their own, and doesn’t know that they can’t blog in favor of the company without revealing that they work there. Sometimes what people are doing is malicious, but sometimes it’s just policy ignorance.”

The chief benefit of having such policies in place is twofold: good employees have a clearer sense of boundaries, while rogue workers can be disciplined or terminated if they go out of bounds.

“Talk to people, communicate to them and encourage the use of good common sense,” Eastwood says. “People often just don’t think about the implications that come from the behavior they’re engaging in, and if you show them some scenarios that can come up, you can stave off a lot of problems.

“People are slowly becoming more aware of what can happen from casually posting the wrong bit of information online, but good employers can really accelerate that process. You don’t want to lose a good employee just because they made a misjudgment; that’s why it’s so important to focus on prevention.”

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