Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Employers should have a social networking policy (on top of everything else!)

All prudent employers by now have policies on the use of email and the Internet at work. Some still haven’t dealt with the new problems posed by the growth of social networking. The problem, rather like email and the Internet, is that social networking is in many ways something a business needs to encourage.
While the initial response to the Internet was to stop everyone from using it at work, regarding it as a distraction, its value as a source of business information now makes it inconceivable that many employees should not be allowed to use it. And email is as essential a means of communication as the telephone, which people need to be able to use during working hours even for private purposes. Broadband access has now become regarded as a human right, and although this doesn’t automatically place social networking and access to communications technology at work in the same category, we do have to look at them in that light.
The information that many of us need to do our jobs is now often found on the Internet. Social networking sites are rapidly assuming the same degree of importance for marketing purposes. Blogs, Tweets and sites like Facebook, Plaxo and LinkedIn offer indispensable opportunities to tell people about the goods and services you provide. Look at the take-up of these media by lawyers, even if they haven’t yet worked out how Twitter will actually help them.
For years now, employees have been ambassadors for their employers out of the workplace as well as in it. If you see a supermarket employee in her uniform on the way to work dropping litter, your opinion of the supermarket is likely to be adversely affected. If you have the misfortune to travel in the same train carriage as a pair of drunken accountants whose computer cases display the name of the firm for which they work, you will form an impression of that firm. Facebook profiles can tell you where an individual works: with sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo communicating that information is the whole point of the exercise.
Whether people are allowed to use social networking sites at work is one matter. Trying to stop them might be like trying to hold back the tide, but there are certainly good reasons for doing so – if only to stop time wasting. What they say on these services, whether in their own time or at work, is probably more important.
Contracts of employment already deal with confidential information and the protection of the employer’s intellectual property – including copyright, which arises automatically and belongs to the employer when the employee creates something in the course of their employment. They also deal – usually – with saying unfavourable things about your employer, or perhaps even saying anything about him, her or it. Contracts (and associated policies) will also deal with matters like discrimination, so anyone posting racially offensive material on the Internet is likely to be in trouble with their employer as well as the criminal law. That ought to be quite enough to deal with what employees write on the Facebook walls, but it’s a good time to remind people of that and perhaps to tweak what the contract says.
Just like emails, the employer is also likely to want to monitor what is being said. If it comes from the office computer system, whether it's authorised by the employer is not the important thing - the employee posting offensive material on Facebook might have committed a discplinary offence, but that isn't going to prevent the damage to the employer's reputation. The same applies if the information posted infringes copyright or breaches a confidence. The employer probably needs to be proactive, and stop these things going out in the first place. Provided employees are told that postings will be monitored (as should already be the case with emails) they cannot complain of intrusions into their privacy.
A social networking policy isn’t likely to be needed to stop people breaching confidence, infringing copyright or libelling their employers. But it might well be necessary to get the most out of these new marketing tools. Just as employers will want employees to use the Internet in ways that fit with their duties, so too they should embrace the marketing possibilities offered by the new media.
How? That requires more expertise than a neophyte such as myself can offer, and clearly if the corporate hand of someone’s employer is detected in the content of what purports to be an independent blog it is unlikely to be taken seriously. That’s a problem for the marketing people: the problem for the lawyers is to devise an approach that creates the space for employees to work positively for the brand without losing hours of working time to Facebook and Twitter.

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