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Attorneys discuss prevalence of social networking in the workplace, and outline tips for developing a policy

In a webinar on the subject of social networking, Fisher & Phillips attorneys laid out statistics identifying just how prevalent use of social networking sites has become. The numbers are staggering. MySpace, for example, reports more than 185 million users contribute to more than 50 million posts per day. As of June, the presenters say Facebook had more than 400 million active users worldwide. By comparison, on June 7, 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau’s website indicated that the population of the United States was approximately 309,448,262. The fastest growing demographic of Facebook users are age 35 and older. Those aren’t high school kids. They’re your employees.

Other “hot” social networking sites include:

  • LinkedIn (more than 50 million users);
  • Windows Live Spaces (120 million users);
  • Habbo (118 million users);
  • Friendster (90 million users);
  • Flixster (63 million users);
  • Classmates (50 million users);
  • MyLife (50 million users);
  • Bebo (40 million users); and
  • Tagged (10 million users).

Not that long ago, social media sites such as those listed were something employers were wary of using. However, according to presenters, most have since overcome their fears. According to presenters, 79 percent of Global Fortune 100 firms use at least one social media platform:

  • 65 percent use Twitter;
  • 54 percent use Facebook;
  • 50 percent have a YouTube channel; and
  • 33 percent use corporate blogs.

Through social networking sites, organizations can develop a corporate brand or image, launch new promotions, and improve customer access to information. In addition, they can monitor competition. And, though potentially risky depending on how discovered information is used, employers can use social networking sites to learn what their employees are doing away from work and more about their background.

However, despite the dramatic increase in the use of social networking websites, a Wall Street Journal survey revealed that only 26 percent of employees say their employers have a policy regarding social networking. Similarly, a Manpower survey found that only 29 percent of employers have a “formal policy regarding employee use of social networking sites.”

Organizations are quickly realizing the importance of having a policy. Employers’ and employees’ use of social networking, though at times beneficial, can also be riddled with a variety of dangers. For example, according to a Proofpoint’s 2009 Study on Outbound email and Data Loss Prevention:

  • 42 percent of companies say layoffs have increased data leakage;
  • 34 percent of companies were harmed by sensitive info release;
  • 31 percent of companies terminated someone for e-mail violations;
  • 24 percent of companies say e-mail subpoenaed; and
  • 8 percent terminated someone for use of social networking sites.

And then there are compliance issues with Title VII and other discrimination laws, the Stored Communications Act, Invasion of privacy issues and the NLRA. In addition, the presenters identified “sexting” with a coworker, individual discussions of medical conditions or disabilities, and getting “poked” by the boss on Facebook as potential lurking claims.

Practical guidelines. In light of all this information, the presenters provided 10 quick tips for moving forward in a manner that makes social networking a benefit, rather than a detriment, to your organization:

  1. Realize many different local, state, and federal laws apply.
  2. Be real: expect employees to use these sites.
  3. Beware of what you learn: ignorance can be helpful.
  4. Limit searches to “professional” sites.
  5. Be consistent in how you use what you find.
  6. Publish your policies.
  7. Train managers.
  8. Educate employees.
  9. Monitor the web about your company.
  10. Follow new developments in the law.

If survey results are accurate and less than one third of employers have a social networking policy in place, then many employers may find the presenters’ tips on policy development beneficial. For example, they said that employers can use a policy to remind employees that online sites are in the public domain. As a result, employees should be respectful and remember that off duty actions can result in discharge from employment. In addition, employers can use these policy to implement privacy controls and to emphasize that productivity counts. Specifically, consider the following:

  • Require compliance with existing policies;
  • Prohibit defamation and fraud;
  • Prohibit references to customers;
  • Ban use of protected logos or trademarks; and
  • Require employees to use disclaimers.

And, specific to your managers, presenters suggest the following “don’ts”":

  1. Don’t become “friends” with employees online;
  2. Don’t reveal anything you wouldn’t say or post in public;
  3. Don’t engage in fraud ( e.g., “fake” friend requests on Facebook);
  4. Don’t forget to use privacy controls to manage the flow of information; and
  5. Don’t forget that Web content can be false.

If you’re not up to developing an entirely new policy, consider that the following policies are related to the very issues brought up by social networking and could incorporate or address social networking issues specifically. These related policies include EEO & No Harassment policies; Electronic Communications and Internet Usage on Company Systems policies; Confidential Information and Trade Secrets policies; Cell Phone policies; and Use of Blackberries or PDA policies.

Source: “Social Media: The Collision of MySpace, Your Space, and Our Space,” a webinar presented by Tex McIver, a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, and Deepa Subramanian, an associate also in the Atlanta office, 1500 Resurgens Plaza, 945 East Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, Georgia 30326; telephone: 404-240-4234.