Boise State on Business by Susan Park: Social media policy helps avoid pitfalls

SUSAN PARK, assistant professor of business law at Boise State University's College of Business and EconomicsJuly 2, 2013 

We have all heard the stories about outrageous behavior made public via social media.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Idaho congressman Raul Labrador's spokesperson sent an inappropriate tweet from Labrador's official Twitter account. Although it was deleted after 14 seconds, given the national press coverage devoted to the incident, clearly the damage had been done. (And the spokesman was subsequently terminated.)

And who hasn't heard of Anthony Weiner?

This issue certainly isn't limited only to circumstances involving elected officials, either. An official at Chrysler offended more than 7,500 followers with a derogatory Tweet about drivers in Detroit. A WalMart employee was fired after making derogatory statements about Wal-Mart shoppers on his MySpace account.

The news is full of stories of similar employee behavior resulting in embarrassment to employers and, in many cases, the employee out of a job.

Other stories related to employment law and social media also have made the news recently.

Last year, a company named PhoneDog filed a trade secret misappropriation case against an employee who refused to provide PhoneDog with access to his Twitter account (and its 17,000 followers) when he left the company. The case settled out of court, so its terms are unavailable. However, given the prevalence of social media in the workplace, it is likely to be repeated.

Do your employees have social media accounts associated with your business? If so, do you have an agreement or policy indicating who owns that account?

More and more businesses are creating and maintaining social media accounts because they can be tremendously beneficial to business.

Facebook and Twitter can help you reach new audiences in a fresh and exciting way.

But as the above stories make clear, allowing employees to manage your account can be risky, especially as the lines between company outreach and personal socializing blur.

How can you protect your business from these types of social-media related problems? A well-drafted and properly enforced social media policy can help.

Consider the following:

Your social media policy should be clear and concise. Revise or delete any statements that are vague or lack clarification.

Communicate to employees when social media can be used at work. Include guidance about respectful conduct, both within the company and with outsiders. Instruct employees regarding disclosure of their company employment status, especially when posting about the company on personal sites.

Consider including a provision that any work-related social media accounts are the property of the employer. Also state that the employee will be obligated to return account access to the employer when the employee leaves the company for any reason.

In light of recent National Labor Relations Board decisions relating to social media, your employment policy should steer clear of limiting employees' ability to speak to co-workers about their benefits and working conditions.

It should include a statement that you do not intend any provision in the policy to interfere with your employees' exercise of their rights to engage in concerted activity.

Throw out any reporting requirement regarding co-workers' social media activity. Asking employees to tell on their co-workers can be a problem, both legally and ethically.

Once it is properly drafted, be sure the policy is communicated to employees, both when they are hired and periodically thereafter.

Finally, as always, consult an HR specialist or employment law attorney about your proposed policy before sharing it with employees.

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spark@boisestate.org

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