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Opinion: Social media rise merits updated staff policies

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Hardly a day passes without a headline regarding improper or inappropriate use of social media Web sites by individuals. While reading the stories may be educational – and entertaining – no business owner or supervisor wants to be the subject of the next viral Internet tale of woe.

More companies are recognizing not only that information posted by employees, customers or critics may have an effect on business, but also that a professional presence on the Web is essential for maintaining and growing a business. While most companies have developed policies relating to the use of the Internet on company time and proper use of company e-mails, only a few have considered whether updating those policies, or creating new policies devoted exclusively to social networking, is necessary.

The rise of the Internet and the ability of employees to write personal blogs, post comments on sites such as Facebook or “recommend” colleagues or former employees on professionally recognized sites such as LinkedIn have changed how employers should look at Internet usage policies for employees.

During the past few months, for example, several businesses have been faced with publicity (mostly negative) due to YouTube videos posted online by employees regarding, in some manner, the business of the employer. Similarly, employers who used to only wonder if their employees were criticizing management or company clientele may now be faced with virtual real-time proof of disparaging comments through blogging or posts on company fan pages.

Consequently, all business owners should consider whether their company policies provide adequate guidelines for what is appropriate for employees to be posting on social media sites in relation to their jobs or employers. While personal blogs are, by definition, “personal,” employers may be concerned if negative information about the company is included in postings or if an employee is posting confidential business information.

There also are other hazards. Employers whose managers google applicants or current employees may inadvertently risk violating federal or state antidiscrimination laws. Those employers who are proactively using social media for business purposes – marketing, recruiting or just plain information dissemination – have other reasons for needing a consistent set of guidelines to provide clarification as to what is expected, and what is tolerated.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all social media policy. What works for a small privately held company that has no interest in attracting a customer base through a Facebook page will not work for a family owned restaurant or service provider that tweets about daily specials. A large publicly held manufacturing company whose customers comment on the effectiveness of a product will have different concerns.

In short, the contents of a policy will depend on the specifics of the organization, and considerations are not limited to the company’s size or ownership. Does your company encourage marketing on (or through) the Web? Do your employees have significant public interaction that is critical to the reputation of your company (think outside salesperson versus internal computer technician)? The answers to questions such as these will determine what type of policy best suits a business’ particular needs.

While private sector employers often have more leeway in restricting the speech of employees than do public sector employers, a recent National Labor Relations Board complaint regarding a company’s decision to fire an employee because of a Facebook posting may provide additional constraints to private employers’ abilities to restrict what is said about their companies. As is true in so many areas of the law, the consequences for posting “negative” information will likely depend on the particulars of each specific situation.

The rules will continue to change, and information will continue to be broadly disseminated. Only companies that proactively consider the possibilities will be prepared to address the social aspect of this new media.

Shareholder Karen R. Glickstein practices employment law at Polsinelli Shughart PC in Kansas City. She can be reached at kglickstein@polsinelli.com.[[In-content Ad]]

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