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Regulate Social Media?

Like moths to the light, your employees are drawn to social media in increasing numbers, whether it is through Facebook, texting, online chatting, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, or one of the many other channels available. Thus, social media is reaching into the workplace and forcing employers to face a growing list of concerns stemming from employees’ use of these various outlets.  While the use of social media in the workplace is often a personal pursuit, it is frequently combined with professional purposes. This intermingling of the two worlds presents employers with new hazards, as well as opportunities as, ultimately, the degree of involvement in and control over an employee’s use of social networking vehicles is up to the employer.

The benefits of embracing social networking are clear.  Social networking sites can provide your business with new avenues to market themselves and brand their products and services.  Additionally, businesses can enhance existing business relationships and develop new customer relationships. Also significant, social networking can also help to foster internal networking among your employees, improve applicant screening, and monitor employee conduct that may reflect positively or negatively on the company. Employers need to discover ways to use social media outlets as tools, instead of treating them merely as threats.  Clearly, as many emerging social media experts are loudly declaring, businesses that are better able to position themselves to reap the benefits of both existing structures and new developments in social networking will be the leading organizations in the future.

The Internet, however, has long provided a ready and willing forum for disgruntled individuals to voice complaints and launch verbal attacks with immediacy. The ease with which a person can take action within a social networking environment can often result in impulsive and ill-advised content that is posted with impunity and made available to the general public for immediate consumption.  Part of the issue is that the sense of community found within a person’s network leads to the common misperception that the Internet is beyond the reach of traditional mores and existing rules.

The resulting behavior can have vast legal implications, including discrimination lawsuits, defamation claims, disclosure of the company’s confidential information and trade secrets, and damage to the company’s reputation. Moreover, courts are increasingly finding that content on social media sites is discoverable in litigation, which imposes additional burdens and costs on employers, especially those who do not already have mechanisms in place to address employee use of social media.

But regulating your employees’ social media content raises a number of significant hurdles: monitoring can be time-consuming, regulation of off-hours conduct is fraught with concerns related to personal privacy, and the availability of social media applications on mobile devices renders “site blocking” generally futile. Additionally, employers must recognize situations in which the employees’ activity – while, perhaps distasteful – may constitute protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act, or whistleblower or retaliation statutes.

Hence, it is critical that your employees be given guidance through a clear social media policy that delineates what conduct is acceptable, what conduct is prohibited and exactly what the latter means in terms of disciplinary consequences.  And like all disciplinary policies in the workplace, employee education and consistent enforcement are critical.  While some businesses may find it necessary to prohibit employees’ use of social media outlets altogether, companies that can derive benefits from appropriate use should consider adopting policies that accommodate their employees’ use of social networking accounts, while still discouraging inappropriate use that may harm the company. For example, an employer may find a clear prohibition on harassing, defamatory, or illicit content coupled with different access policies for on-the-job social media use versus off-the-job use creates a more flexible and positive environment for its employees.

For companies that operate in industries that necessitate social media use by employees, a more open policy – with restrictions imposed only on inappropriate content – would be favored in order to further the company’s goals. In concert with promulgating a policy, employers are well advised to train their employees in not only the terms of the policy, but also the rationales and company goals underlying the policy.  Regardless of how restrictive you with to be regarding employees’ use of social networking, a clear, understandable, written policy is fast becoming a business necessity. By crafting a company-specific policy and educating your workforce regarding its purposes and practical implications, your company can capitalize on the advantages offered by social media while avoiding its pitfalls.


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