UPDATE, JUNE 2012: The NLRB on May 30, 2012, issued its third report on social media cases brought to the agency. The report calls into question the legality of some wording employers commonly use in their SM policies. The Operations Management Memo details seven cases involving such policies. In six cases, the General Counsel’s office found some provisions of the employer’s social media policy to be lawful. In the seventh case, the entire policy was found to be lawful.
Whether they’re shooting off their own tweets or following others, employees using Twitter—the fastest growing social media site—are creating liability and PR risks with their 140-character rants, raves and company gossip.
Example: A high-profile public relations executive landed in Memphis and promptly posted on his Twitter account, “I would die if I had to live here.” The problem: Memphis is home to FedEx, one of the PR exec’s largest clients. Oops. Needless to say, FedEx reps were not amused.
The trend isn’t confined to Twitter, Facebook or other social media tools. Any kind of blog or video can spread your employees’ “youthful indiscretions” around the world in seconds.
Example 2: When two employees at a North Carolina Domino’s pizza delivery store were bored one evening, one filmed the other sticking a piece of cheese up his nose and then placing it on a sandwich soon to be delivered to a customer. They posted the video on YouTube. More than half a million hits later, Domino’s had a viral gross-out PR nightmare on its hands and the health department at its doorstep.
In an ideal world, both of these incidents would be covered by a policy reading, “For gosh sakes, people, use your heads!” But behavior is easier to legislate than common sense, which means crafting policies that rein in how employees may use technology on the job.
Defining the technology and the problem
According to a recent survey conducted by Deloitte, 22% of employees say that they use some form of social networking five or more times per week, and 15% of employees admit they access social networking while at work for personal reasons. Yet, only 22% of companies have a formal policy that guides employees in how they can use social networking at work.
Before we can figure out what to do about these exploding media at work, we first need to know exactly what we are dealing with. So, for the uninitiated, the following is a short lesson on the various types of social networking that are likely being accessed from your workplace right now.
Blogs: Blog is short for weblog. Blogs either provide commentary on news or a particular subject, or serve as an online diary. There are hundreds of millions of blogs on the Internet, many updated every day.
Facebook: Facebook started as an online tool for college and university students to connect with each other. It has since expanded to allow anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address to open a free account. It is loosely organized into a variety of networks based on schools, location, employers, charities and other causes. Connections are known as “friends.” People update with short written blurbs about what they’re doing, pictures, video and the like.
LinkedIn: LinkedIn is an online network for professionals. It allows people to search and connect via alma mater, location, employer or various user-created groups. It has over 41 million members.
Twitter: Twitter is latest big thing in social networking. It is known as “micro-blogging.” “Tweets” are text-based posts of up to 140 characters, displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered to followers, other users who have subscribed.
Crafting the policy: The 7 key questions
A perfect social networking policy to cover these new media could be drafted using only a few words: “Be mature, be ethical, and think before you type.” Ultimately, you may decide that such brevity is what you want for you business. For the sake of completeness, though, here are the seven most important questions to ask yourself when drafting a social networking policy.
1. How far do you want to reach? Social networking presents two concerns for employers—how employees are spending their time at work, and how employees are portraying your company online when they are not at work. Any social networking policy must address both types of online use.
2. Do you want to permit social networking at work, at all? It is not realistic to ban all social networking at work. For one thing, you will lose the benefit of business-related networking. Further, a blanket ban is also hard to monitor and enforce.
3. If you prohibit social networking, how will you monitor it? Turning off Internet access, installing software to block certain sites or monitoring employees’ use and disciplining offenders are all possibilities, depending on how aggressive you want to be and how much time you want to spend watching what your employees do online.
4. If you permit employees to social network at work, do you want to limit it to work-related conduct, or permit limited personal use? How you answer this question depends on how you balance productivity versus marketing return.
5. Do you want employees to identify with your business when networking online? Employees should be made aware that if they post as an employee of your company, the company will hold them responsible for any negative portrayals. Or, you could simply require that employees not affiliate with your business and lose the networking and marketing potential Web 2.0 offers.
6. How do you define “appropriate business behavior?” Employees need to understand that what they post online is public, and they have no privacy rights in what they put out for the world to see. Anything in cyberspace can be used as grounds to discipline an employee, no matter whether the employee wrote it from work or outside of work.
7. How will social networking intersect with your broader harassment, technology and confidentiality policies? Employment policies do not work in a vacuum. Employees’ online presence—depending on what they are posting—can violate any number of other corporate policies. Drafting a social networking policy is an excellent opportunity to revisit, update and fine-tune other policies.
Contributor: Jon Hyman, a partner with Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL, a Cleveland-based law firm, and editor of the Ohio Employment Law newsletter. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SAMPLE POLICY WORDING
According to a Society for Human Resource Management report, here are some specific guidelines for drafting a policy on employees’ use of Twitter or other social-networking tools.
- Don’t let personal use of Twitter or other social networking sites interfere with work.
- Employees must get company approval to use Twitter to conduct business. (Note: This isn’t far-fetched. Many organizations have successfully incorporated Twitter into their marketing strategies.)
- Any use of the organization’s name, trademarks, logos or other intellectual property must be approved.
- If employees make personal comments about any aspect of the organization’s business, their profiles must carry a disclaimer that the views expressed are their own, and not the organization’s.
- Tweets may not disclose confidential or proprietary information.
- Employees should use common sense about what they post.