Risks of Employees’ Use of Social Media

As companies look for more creative ways to promote and grow their businesses, social networking provides new opportunities to reach existing and potential customers. Today it seems that every other person has a Facebook or Twitter account. Promoters of social media offer classes on how to maximize social media accounts for businesses but few provide information on the risks associated with using social media.

For many, using social media is a means to connect with current and former business colleagues and, after all, it is the same medium that people use to contact friends and relatives. Employers often encourage their employees on social media websites such as LinkedIn. So what is the problem?

One of the risks posed by employees’ use of social media is associated with “sharing” of information. Companies are protective of their customer lists and supplier contact information. Yet this is the type of information commonly disclosed through social media. The disclosure of information, either inadvertently or intentionally, that, in any other setting the company would consider “confidential”, is problematic.

Consider this scenario. An employee of a company joins LinkedIn. The more information entered on LinkedIn by the employee, the more the employee participates in the social network, the more benefits the employee receives. So there is an incentive to sharing information. This employee downloads his Outlook contact list into his LinkedIn page which contains customer contact information and other confidential information of the company. As a result, the employee’s LinkedIn page yields additional contact information but at what cost to the company. Some or all of the company’s confidential customer list, an important factor in the company’s success, is now available to everyone including competitors.

Other social media scenarios could include an employee who asserts that a negative performance review was given in retaliation for refusing her supervisor’s “friend” request on Facebook or an employee publishes a blog that reflects negatively on the company’s products, services or management. There are many other foreseeable risks associated with employees’ uses of social media.

It is critical for all employers to have clear, well-conceived policies and procedures governing employees’ use of social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Social media offers low-cost, high speed marketing tools capable of reaching a wide audience twenty-four hours a day, every day. The use of this powerful technology, however, is fraught with risk.

To address the risks posed by employees’ use of social media, employers must develop and implement clear guidelines for employees use of social media both at work and outside the office. The first step to developing a social media policy is to determine the organization’s social media philosophy – whether and to what extent will the organization use social media to promote is business. An effective social media policy balances the employer’s desire to control employees’ use of social media with employees’ rights such as, free speech. An effective social media policy is flexible so that unforeseeable situations and technological innovations can be addressed, and allows for reasonable oversight and enforcement by the company.

Given the complexity of the issues involved in the use of social media and the differing desires and needs of a particular businesses, there is no “one size fits all” social media policy. Businesses should consult experienced legal counsel when developing and implementing a social media policy.

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