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Companies should consider using social networking to their advantage

Much has been reported about the risks associated with social networking: liability in the form of discrimination or harassment suits, decreased productivity, and privacy infringement, just to name a few. In fact, according to Susan Miele, senior partner at Camden Consulting Group, the greatest risk to employers of employees’ social networking use include:

  • Employees spend too much time on social networking sites during work hours, resulting in decreased productivity and focus.
  • Employees post confidential or proprietary information about the Company on their social networking site.
  • Employees give recommendations or other commentary about coworkers, in violation of the Company’s reference policy.
  • Employees make negative, disrespectful or potentially harassing statements about colleagues or the Company on these sites.
  • Employees make statements on their personal sites that could be attributed to the Company.
  • Employees claim that their privacy or other legal rights were violated as a result of the Company’s improperly accessing private sites, and/or taking action against the employees based on allegedly private postings.

But what about using social networking for the good of the organization? “With a properly-drafted policy, and with lawful periodic monitoring, employers can reduce many of these risks,” said Miele. Many organizations are beginning to realize that use of social networking sites, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace can work to their advantage.

“Twitter, Facebook and the like give CEO’s and senior leaders the power to communicate instantly and with great regularity and consistency to large, globally diverse teams, including employees, contractors, and vendors,” said Miele. “This helps foster open communication, clarity of direction and goals and direct connection between individual team members and the leaders of the business.”

Drafting a social networking policy. Miele provided the following 10 tips to assist a company when drafting their social networking policy:

  1. No interference with work activities—consider monitoring software.
  2. Let employees know that their social networking activities outside of work may be viewed by Company management, and taken into account in assessing the employee’s performance, loyalty, etc.
  3. Publication of information on social networking sites must comply with all company policies regarding ethics, privacy, and the protection of confidential and proprietary information.
  4. Employees may not share Company or client secrets on social networking sites.
  5. Employees may not make references to Company clients, customers, or partners, without permission.
  6. On personal blogs, the employee should make clear that the views are the author’s, not the Company’s.
  7. Employees may not put Company logos and trademarks on personal social networking sites.
  8. Employees must be respectful of Company, coworkers, competitors, and colleagues, as their online activities, whether during our outside of work, reflect upon the company.
  9. Employees must respect copyright laws—cite sources.
  10. Employees should be transparent—don’t hide behind phony identities.

Trouble is never far away; why a policy is more important than ever. It is imperative that employers develop and establish social networking policies. “An employer that fails to establish clear, lawful and consistent policies with regard to social networking can easily run into legal trouble,” said Miele, who provided the following examples of social networking scenarios that result in legal trouble:

  • A manager makes a crude comment about his subordinate on his social networking site, which is available to “friends” only. The employee hears about it, and sues both him and the company for sexual harassment.
  • A company sues a competitor for stealing the company’s trade secrets. The competitor claims that the information in question is not truly a trade secret because, unbeknownst to the company, it was posted on an employee’s social networking site. As a result of the employee’s actions, the company loses both the information and the lawsuit.
  • A company hears through the grapevine that two employees are saying negative things about their manager on a social networking site. A manager pressures a subordinate for her username and password to the site, gains access to the site and then fires the employees who are the site’s creators. The fired employees sue under federal and state wiretap and breach of privacy laws.
  • A high-level manager gives his former colleague a recommendation on LinkedIn, even though company policy prohibits references. Another former employee who was denied a reference claims that she is being treated differently, and sues for discrimination and defamation.

“Employers facing these sorts of scenarios are not without defenses and remedies; however, their position is almost always stronger if they have a clear, consistent and uniformly-enforced social networking policy that specifically addresses issues like harassment, confidential/proprietary information, references, and company monitoring,” Miele explained.

Is it safer to just prohibit social networking altogether? Although the dangers of social networking could rear their ugly heads at any given moment, the answer isn’t to just prohibit the practice altogether. In this case, the benefits often outweigh the risks.

“Social networking has been found in some cases to increase productivity, particularly on teams that are in geographically disparate locations,” said Miele. “Furthermore, social networks can be a company’s most powerful marketing and lead generation tool and they are free to use. Management who struggle with staff members who, for example, waste time on social networks are bound to find that those issues will remain whether the employees have access to the social networking sites or not.”