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Social Networking: A Bold New (Unregulated) Workplace

Social Media is perhaps the single largest growing phenomenon in a generation. And, as you might expect, it is becoming ever present at the workplace. The reality today is that social media in the workplace is becoming a regular part of the average employee’s work day. Your employees are communicating with each other in ways we could not have anticipated just ten years ago. Not only are employees using e-mail at their workspaces, they are using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. The communication is not just with their co-workers, but also with individuals outside your workplace. They are also communicating on their own devices as well as those owned by their employers. The line between personal and professional communications has been blurred.

The informality of social media by design lends itself to a less formal approach. As a result of the informality it is more likely that employees could intentionally or unintentionally reveal information about the organization, its clients and other sensitive information. Employees today think nothing of e-mailing inappropriate comments or pictures. And, when they leave, sixty percent of employees steal employer data, according to the Wall Street Journal. Currently, there are virtually no laws on the books to address social media in the workplace. So, what is an employer to do?

Whether your employees have regular computer access or not, you should strongly consider a social media policy to outline for employees your corporate guidelines or principles of communicating in the online world. Employees generally have a duty of loyalty to their employers. Employees should be reminded of this duty, generally, and in the social media context, specifically.

Do you have any existing communications, privacy and ethics policies? If so, you may already have most of what you need. A policy statement, for example, might begin: “Social networking websites (such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc.), blogs, newsgroups, chat rooms, and Twitter (referred to collectively in this policy as “social networking sites”) provide users with a means to connect with people around the world. While the Company does not prohibit employees from accessing or using these websites during lunch and other breaks and on non-work time, it is important for Company employees to remember that in some contexts they may be perceived as representatives of the Company, even on social networking sites. Accordingly, this policy provides guidance to employees with respect to social networking and applies to the extent permitted by law.”

The policy should go on to remind employees they have no right to privacy with respect to social networking and that the organization reserves the right to monitor employee use of social media regardless of location. It should also be made clear that the employer’s policies on anti-harassment, ethics and loyalty extend to all forms of communication (including social media) both inside and outside the workplace. Employees also must be reminded they are required to maintain the confidentiality of Employer and client information and are prohibited from disseminating such information through the use of social networking sites. A definition of what constitutes “confidential information” should also be included. For example, “confidential information includes financial, legal, product, business, research and development, marketing, internal policies and procedures, and trade secret information, as well as other employees’ personal information.”

The workplace is changing so dramatically that the failure to consider what your employees and outside forces are doing, sharing and accessing could end up costing you thousands of dollars, damage to your computer systems and litigation. Act now to eliminate these potential threats by implementing appropriate social networking policies and by regularly monitoring these policies to ensure they are addressing the new trends.