Protecting Your Business: Social Media Policies at Work

Posted on October 21, 2010

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With the recent explosion of social media tools for both personal and professional use, as usual, the law struggles to keep up with technology. For years, stories have made the news about employers letting employees go for thoughts and comments posted on their personal blogs. Today, career counselors warn recent graduates about the content of their Facebook pages as it is also commonly known that many employers check Facebook as regularly as they verify resumes and past-job references.

However, these issues only scratch the surface of the legal implications embroiled in social media, employment and privacy. Many businesses do not know that they can be legally responsible for the actions of their employees on social media sites.  Legal implications can include: defamation, online disparagement, infringement of privacy rights, misrepresentation, infringement of intellectual property rights, false advertising or unfair competition.

The recent firing of CNN’s Rick Sanchez left open the question of who really owns a terminated employee’s Twitter account, in this case ricksanchezcnn. According to Legal Blog Watch, arguments can easily be made on both sides – while Rick Sanchez probably does “own” his fans, once he is no longer affiliated with CNN, he probably cannot use said affiliation in his Twitter name to garner more fans and attention.

While many of these questions will eventually be answered by judges and juries, we recommend that, in the meantime, the best course of action is for employers to implement a social media policy for their employees. Questions to be considered when drafting such a policy include: Does an employee represent his or her company on their personal sites and accounts as well as their professional ones? Does an employee need permission before making certain statements on blogs, Facebook or Twitter? When will the employer stand behind the employee’s Internet posts and when will he or she insist on their removal?

Inc. Magazine’s article from January 25, 2010 interviewed Andy Beal, CEO of Trackur.com, on the topic. Beal advises companies on managing their reputation on the Internet.  According to Inc., he believes strongly in social media policies, although, as he states, they “need only include what is necessary to protect the company legally and financially.”  Also according to Inc., “Ultimately your social media policy should function as an informal guide, in which there is room for interpretation and discussion with employees” because, as Beal says, “The benefits of having your employees engaging in social media far outweigh the dangers of them saying something that they shouldn’t.”

The key here is to balance the legal concerns of the employer with the financial benefits of using a social media policy as a marketing tool.  Inc. Magazine also recommends the following when implementing a social media policy:

– The social media policy that is implemented should not be unduly complex.

– It should be simple for employees to understand and follow and posted somewhere where all employees will see the document.

– If the Employee has a question, they should know which superior to contact.

– Similar to employee handbook provisions, the policy should also be communicated to the employees directly.

– Additionally, it should be a document that is constantly evolving as technology and laws relating thereto change.

If you’re considering implementing a social media policy within your workplace, Social Media Governance offers an excellent overview of other companies’ policies as a good place to start and grow your own employee guidelines.  (As always, we recommend that you have an attorney review before posting any policy).

Elizabeth Ritter
Ritter Law Firm, LLC

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