President Obama, CNN, and the New York Times all share a common achievement. They all have more than one million Twitter followers. A large percentage of your co-workers probably update their own status on Facebook, as the social networking site claims it has 250 million users. If you doubt the importance and widespread adoption of social media, the Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly monitoring corporate communications made via Twitter and corporate blogs. Many companies overlook the risks associated with social media or believe that their existing policies cover the new media.
Social networking and social media has grown largely due to the emergence of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 has allowed social interaction to be the focal point of online activity. Web 2.0 is the technology allowing real-time interactivity over the Web rather than the one-way information street upon which the World Wide Web was founded. Thanks to widely available bandwidth and sophisticated online browsers, users can share tags and comments on text, video, photos and audio. Twitter is the latest rage as it allows users to "tweet," or provide text message of less than 140 characters, to followers throughout the day. Facebook gives users the opportunity to update their status with their latest thoughts, activities, or comments.
Social networking sites present an array of concerns for employers. Two of the most pressing concerns are how employees are spending their time at work, and how employees are portraying the company online when they are not at work. Any social networking policy must address both types of online use.
By now, everyone should understand that anything they post, comment, upload or write in cyberspace is public. This is true no matter how carefully they select the privacy settings on their favorite networking site. Employees must be reminded that their online presence reflects upon the company. As a broad overview to a social media use policy, employees must be respectful to the company, fellow employees, customers, partners, and competitors.
The social media policy should explicitly state that their online activities should not interfere with work commitments. In simple language, the company must admonish employees to obey the law with special deference given to intellectual property rights including copyright laws. The identities of clients, partners, or customers should not be revealed on social networking sites without their express consent. An effective social media policy applies regardless of whether the employee participates at work or from home. The policy should clarify that any damaging information provided by the employee can serve as grounds for discipline.
Employees must be aware that if they post any comments as an employee of your organization they will be held responsible for any negative representations. A simple remedy to this potential problem is to ask employees not to identify themselves with your company while participating in social networking sites. An easy starting point, employers should prohibit employees from using company email addresses on social networking sites. For decades, companies have banned the use of corporate logos and company letterhead for personal use. The company-provided email address should be treated similarly.
Companies that limit or restrict access to Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and other social network sites may actually cause more inefficiency in the workforce. Blackberries, iPhones, and other smart phones have become ubiquitous in today's office landscape. Employees who participate in social networks will likely shift their usage from corporate networks to their personal mobile devices. In effect, companies add to time wasted, while removing potential benefits that employees could be gaining by connecting on networks for the corporation's benefit. Not only will employees move their usage to their personal devices, companies may lose the benefit of tracking employees' Internet usage through system monitoring. Companies should make employees part of the implementation process rather than treating the employees as part of any perceived problems.
Outright bans on social networking will be costly and time consuming for companies. A blanket prohibition on networking sites leads into an unmanageable analysis of what is fair punishment for violating the use-policy terms. Also, numerous federal and state laws protect employee speech rights in the workplace, including enhanced whistleblower protections. The standard review, probation and termination penalties may not be legally enforceable. In sum, the enforcement and disciplinary process will only consume more company resources in an economic climate where companies are already spread too thin.
As a starting point, companies should review existing policies in light of today's evolving social media. Existing Internet use policies may prove outdated in light of the new social networking norms. Companies should consider forming a committee or team to offer guidance to executives, who may not understand the social media lingo, on social media use policy considerations. By collaborating with a younger, diverse group, the company will better address the emerging issues surrounding these developing technologies. This policy group can later serve as a sounding board for employee questions about proper social media use.
Companies should trust their own employees to be their representatives at all times including while the employees are online. If companies do not have this trust, employers should train the employees to be more effective representatives. While your company may never garner millions of Twitter followers or have thousands of Facebook friends, you must enact effective policies to protect it from potentially hazardous tweets, tags, and status updates.
Jason Morris is an associate in the commercial litigation practice group of Lewis and Roca in Reno. Contact him at JMorris@LRLaw.com or 823-2900.