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Risks of Social Media Use in the Workplace

Posted on 4/19/11 9:30 AM

I don’t use social media at all.  I’m not on Facebook and I have neither blogged nor tweeted.  So when I was asked to write a blog for LPI, being the typical cautious attorney, I thought I would address the risks of social media use.

The explosion of social media use brings both benefits and risks to the employer.  While it is important to capitalize on the benefits; the risks must be mitigated.  While social media provides companies with an outlet for marketing, branding, recruiting and communication; this outlet may bring more risk than benefit without implementing and uniformly enforcing a social media use policy.

Some of the risks include:Social Media Risks

  • Employees sharing confidential information of their employer or its customers;
  • Employees disparaging employers or co-workers;
  • Violation of third-parties’ trademarks or other proprietary information;
  • Employee’s harming their employer’s reputation by personal postings that include inappropriate comments or pictures where the employee’s status as an employee is known or apparent; and
  • Making a hiring or termination decision with facts obtained from a social media outlet that gives rise to a discrimination or wrongful-termination claim.

Social media users frequently share comments, thoughts and feelings without concern for the ramifications.  You can’t eliminate the risk or completely modify behavior; however, through a policy that addresses use both in and outside of the workplace you can set expectations and remind employees of the dangers that are not always top of mind. You can also clarify for employees (i) permitted and forbidden use of company-owned electronic equipment; and (ii) company monitoring efforts of use of company equipment, i.e. limitations on privacy.

An effective policy should inform employees of what they can and cannot do.  There is no “one size fits all” policy.  The policy should be simply stated and easily understood while addressing some or all of the following:

  • explain what is considered acceptable use (what may be posted and when);
  • clarify the expectation of privacy (or lack thereof) and notice of company monitoring of all company-owned equipment;
  • remind employees to be professional at all times;
  • reiterate that internet postings should not disclose any information that is confidential or proprietary to the company or to any third party that has disclosed information to the company;
  • state no logo or trademark (including the company’s) may be used in a posting without the permission of the owner of the logo or trademark and all copyright, privacy, fair use and other applicable laws must be observed;
  • clarify the employer’s equipment may not be used for any illegal activity;
  • reserve the company’s right to take disciplinary action against an employee if his or her electronic communication violates the company’s social media policy or any other company policy;
  • require that any comments on any aspect of the employer’s business clearly identify the writer as an employee and include a disclaimer that the views are solely the writer’s and do not reflect the views of the employer;
  • require prior company approval when an employee is posting about the company, a competitor or the industry;
  • provide instructions on how to report a violation of the policy; and
  • instruct whom to notify within the company to ask any questions concerning the policy or to receive prior approval of a contemplated posting;

While no policy can address every scenario, having a policy will establish guidelines and expectations and a procedure for addressing questions concerning the social media.  If acceptable within your corporate culture, a company should have employees acknowledge in writing that they have read and agree to adhere to the social media use policy; this will enhance their understanding of its importance and make them aware of the harm they can do to the company and themselves if they violate it.

There are many issues when employers use social networking sites to obtain information about potential job applicants or in making termination decisions.  I’ll address this in my next blog . . . if I am asked to write one again.

The comments in this blog reflect my own views and not those of LP Innovations, Inc. (although my employer does have a social media use policy).  The comments do not constitute legal advice and readers are encouraged to consult their own counsel in drafting and implementing a social media use policy.  Good luck out there in the social media world.  You can at least be rest assured that I will not be watching.

Written by Elizabeth Marx Wexelblatt, General Counsel

Topics: policies and procedures

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