Concern over employee use of social media is “going viral”

By Dodge Communications on October 7th, 2009

The use of social media and networking sites has blurred the line between employees’ personal and professional lives in unprecedented ways. Work history is displayed prominently on LinkedIn profiles. Twitter encourages users to share nuggets throughout their day, whether they are at work or at play. Facebook provides a forum for dialog, discussing – and venting.All are legitimate channels for communication and none is inherently “bad.” But the public and instantaneous nature of these postings raises questions about the impact that personal communication might have on professional reputations, individual and organizational alike. In the past, employers didn’t really worry about what their staff members said outside of work. Phone conversations occurred privately between two people and mail letters likewise reached the hands of limited recipients. That’s no longer the case.And that raises the question: Can employers impose restrictions on the content employees post to various networking sites? And, if they decide they can, what policies should they enact and how should they monitor and enforce compliance?

There is a delicate balance to be maintained here, between upholding the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment and protecting vital corporate assets like public perception and image. As noted in a Sept. 18 story in The Week magazine, “a lot of damage can be done in 140 words or less” on Twitter.In response, more and more organizations are considering formal Social Media Policies to establish parameters and communication with employees about expectations. But most don’t quite know how to go about it, according to a survey conducted by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA), reported Sept. 23 in WebProNews. Only 10% of survey respondents noted they had a specific social networking policy in place, while another 34% said they had a “general policy for employee online activity.”So, what’s the first step? It makes sense, at the onset, to discuss the issue with employees – with a town hall type approach or during departmental meetings perhaps. Staffers may not have considered how their “personal” posts might impact the employer. Heightened awareness and sensitivity are the cornerstone of social media guidelines. It is also important to engage staff in “rule-setting” to demonstrate that the intent of such policies is not to interfere with their personal liberties.From there, employers must clearly articulate their expectations, emphasizing responsibility, accountability and good judgment. Earlier this year the site, Mashable, put forth 10 “must-haves” for a Social Media Policy. It’s a good start and provides food for thought.However, what these suggestions often lack is advice about how to enforce them. First, organizations must determine how much they can afford to invest in monitoring what each employee may be posting on multiple online sites. They must also acknowledge how difficult it is to define what is damaging or inappropriate ("…but I know it when I see it,” as Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 about another topic altogether). Further, these policies must outline fair and consistent consequences for noncompliance.So far, there seem to be no definitive answers. So, we’re interested. If you have instituted a policy, let us know the process you used and what it covers. If you haven’t, share your thoughts and concerns. We’ll gather the feedback and provide updates on how your colleagues are approaching the issue.