Today’s explosion of social media in many ways mirrors the disruptive impact of the Internet itself back in the 1990s.
For many businesses, the prospect of unfettered employee access to these real-time, Web-based, mobile technologies is as daunting as the initial concerns surrounding the introduction of e-mail and instant messaging into the workplace.
But social media, like predecessor innovations, is nonetheless changing the means and formats of communication among individuals, businesses, communities and organizations. And, like it or not, companies are now being forced to make decisions on whether to allow employees to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the workplace.
Like the workplace incursion of the Internet, many business leaders have presumed that employees will only abuse something with so much capability. This initial fear has led many to react harshly and either block, ban or impose significant limitations on social media use.
The difference between the launch of the Internet and the current craze concerning social media is that it has taken longer for leadership to understand social media and its benefits. Leaders also haven’t seen the shift in terms of support for social media as it has progressed.
What companies are beginning to realize is that social media is no different than any other form of what they embraced with the occasional use of technology, such as e-mail.
As the laws around social media have developed, they have pointed to the fact that if companies use the same common-sense approaches with social media that they have for the Internet, e-mail and other technology, employees will be empowered to take on the burden of responsibility and will, in turn, use good judgment.
Stifling something that can be positive can hurt employee morale, especially when companies have opportunities to control the issues they are worried about by implementing a social media policy and keeping an eye on abuses through appropriate electronic monitoring.
While needs will vary based on the organization and its type of business, basic issues that should be addressed in a social media policy include:
Information that disparages competitors is not allowed;
Do not use social media in violation of company policy, such as to harass co-workers or make discriminatory statements about them;
In no instance should an employee share confidential or proprietary information about the company;
Communication regarding the company that state any opinions must have a disclaimer stating that any opinions expressed are the employee’s own and do not represent the company’s opinions, strategies or positions, unless appropriate business use is pre-authorized and the identity of the authorized poster is disclosed.
If it’s employee abuse and a question of how an employee is spending his or her time that companies are worried about, why even give an employee access to the Internet to begin with? Under this reasoning, does it make sense to block Facebook when an employee can get on Amazon.com and waste an hour of time?
However, from an access standpoint, companies should determine if there are inappropriate sites that can lead to viruses, the opportunity to access obscene materials and similar concerns. Reasons exist to block these as use may implicate violations of the law versus acceptable social media sites that probably should not be blocked.
Most people who are professional in nature and have good judgment will self-police themselves and their conduct on social media, and it’s important for companies to give their employees this responsibility.
Bottom line: Plan accordingly. Accidents are going to happen. Let’s go back to e-mail—ever “reply to all” when you just meant to reply to sender?
With an appropriate policy in place, it is no longer necessary to panic and ban social media just because something might happen. The benefits of allowing employee use trump the potential risks when social media is managed like other technology.
Matthew Deffebach is a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice in the Houston office Haynes and Boone, LLP. He is also a member of the firm’s new Social Media Practice. Matthew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.