Navigating the Social Media Minefield

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs can be powerful business tools. But they also carry risks, including inadvertently disclosing corporate trade secrets or engaging in behavior that can harm your company's reputation.

These concerns, combined with obligations to maintain confidentiality and worries about employee productivity, have prompted some businesses to block or severely limit access to social networks on the job. Other companies, however, are embracing the new technology and urging employees to use it to its fullest.

At the same time, employees need to understand that their employers are increasing their social network presence and that workplace rules of conduct apply online.There's good reason for that caveat: One survey showed that about one-third of employees who post comments online never consider what colleagues, managers or customers are going to think about what they say.

If your organization is grappling with this issue, here are some recommendations to help develop a policy that can leverage the power of social networking while limiting the risks.

Assess the benefits and threats. Determine how employee online networking can help or hinder your company's brand, reputation and growth as well as how it can cause damage. This will help you decide what activities, language and behaviors you want to allow or prohibit.

Weigh boundaries.
Imposing a total lock-out could do more harm than good. It could prompt technically savvy employees to come up with workarounds that could open holes and threaten the security of your computer network. Just as damaging, it could suggest to staff members they aren't trusted, which could damage morale, lower productivity and prompt some employees to post derogatory remarks about your organization.

Consider a compromise.
Put reasonable limits on the frequency or duration of social networking during the workday. Some IT departments have installed software that blocks access after certain thresholds have been reached, such as visiting 20 sites in one day or networking for 45 minutes. Also, consider blocking social media sites that contain inappropriate or potentially inflammatory content. There is also software that will search publicly accessible areas of social sites for mentions of your company so that you can monitor what employees or others are saying.

Get legal advice.
Staff members may view limiting and monitoring of social networking as a violation of privacy rights, but courts have generally ruled that employees have no expectation of privacy when using workplace computers. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to get legal advice to answer questions such as:

Have employees agree to the policy in writing. Once your business crafts an actual policy, be sure each employee reads, agrees to and signs off on it. The policy should:

When it comes to social networking, the lines between personal and professional activities are often unclear. Should a manager "friend" an employee on Facebook? What about employees becoming online friends with customers? Engaging in online discussions in which they mention your company's name and become aggressive or insulting?

These are just some of the questions facing businesses today. Having a policy in place can help your organization balance the benefits of social networking with the risks.

Crossing the Line

When it comes to social networking, unexpected situations come up for employers. For example:

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