Charting the Industry: When Social Networking Gets Personal

A July 2011 study by legal services firm Proskauer illuminates the scope of and potential problems that social media usage brings to the office—and beyond. “Social Networks in Workplaces Around the World,” which polled 120 companies—most of them global—has compelling findings, including:

• Just over a quarter workplaces actively block employees’ access to social networking sites, and a similar percentage monitor employee use of those sites.

• Nearly 40% of businesses have had to deal with employees misusing social networks, and nearly a third have taken disciplinary action against employees for misuse of social networks.

• Nearly half of the companies still do not have social networking policies.

That last bullet may be disturbing enough, but the study also tackles the thorny topic of employees’ use of social media outside of work. When asked if they have policies in place that cover use at work and at home, 44% of the respondents say yes (see the chart for details). This begs the question, though, what recourse do organizations really have when “personal” seeps into “professional”?

As an employer of 150 people who use social media—at work and at home—Ken Wisnefski, CEO of WebiMax, a Mt. Laurel, N.J.-based online marketing company specializing in SEO and social media, feels he has something to worry about. He’s had a few incidents where social media slip-ups have led to WebiMax employees being fired. However, Wisnefski doesn’t believe in setting rules or guidelines for employees outside of work, “but I remind them that they represent our organization at all times of the day,” he says.

But do such unwritten or written reminders have teeth? There are limits, says Jessica Golden Cortes, associate in the Labor & Employment Practice Group of the law firm Davis & Gilbert. “You can have a strong personal conduct code, but when it comes to backing up that code with actions against an employee, there are laws that protect them,” says Cortes.

For example, continues Cortes, some states have passed “legal off-duty conduct” laws, which prohibit employers from firing, discriminating against and refusing to hire someone based on his or her participation in legal recreational activities. This potentially extends to an employee’s personal online activity, unless the employee’s activities are creating a material conflict of interest related to the employer’s business interests.

Example: If a PR agency is working on a campaign for Coca-Cola, and an employee is on her Facebook page vocally promoting Pepsi and hating Coke, the employer arguably can require that the employee remove those posts and fire the employee if he or she doesn’t comply, without violating the legal off-duty conduct laws.

To protect your organization as much as you can, Cortes has these suggestions:

• Discourage employees from friending clients, and discourage managers from friending subordinates.

• Spell out that permission is needed to post company content and views on personal sites (unless such information is already publicly available) and for employees to post anything on the company’s site or blogs, or anywhere else “on behalf of” the company.

• If an employee does disparage your organization online, don’t ignore it. “Go to the employee and talk about the post,” says Cortes. “Don’t let the situation escalate.” PRN


Ken Wisnefski, [email protected]; Jessica Golden Cortes, [email protected]. [email protected].