Employers, Employees and Social Media

08.14.13

 As more companies embrace social media, conflicts and questions on a variety of issues are bound to arise. Below are some things that businesses should consider before encouraging employees to engage in social media.

What are some of the problems companies face with social media?


For several years now, we have been advising companies to establish employee policies that address the use of social media during work hours. Provide specific guidelines as to if and when employees can use such media while on the job. Be clear about company-related topics that should not be discussed, even when the employee is at home on their personal Facebook page. Also, if employees are posting blogs or Tweeting on behalf of the company, careful attention should be paid to protecting the employer’s brand.

When employees use social media to perform their job – for instance, sales, marketing, or public relations professionals - policies need to address how employees are compensated for responding to inquiries or remarks during their off hours. Social media never sleeps and an employee tasked with monitoring comments about the company’s products and responding promptly may find himself or herself responding to Tweets over the weekend when the offices are closed. Many organizations assign social media duties to junior personnel who may be nonexempt and entitled to overtime pay.

Recent issues involve relationships between the employee and the employer, and the employee and their followers. For example, we’ve seen clashes over the ownership of virtual rolodexes housed on LinkedIn and Twitter handles that gain popularity based upon the personality of the person commenting on behalf of the company. Who owns the Twitter handle when the employee leaves the company? Further, as to the professional connections made through Linked In – does the employee keep them when he or she leaves the company? These issues can get pretty sticky and more than a little confusing.

Some examples.

A few examples come to mind quickly. Rick Sanchez, a television anchor at CNN, joined the Twitter community fairly early and developed a large following as @ricksanchezCNN. True, being a CNN anchor probably helped him amass more than 150,000 followers before he left the network. However, establishing a presence on Twitter was not part of his job description and people tend to follow the wit and personality of a person, not the commercialese or jargon of a corporate entity. Were Sanchez’s followers valuable to CNN? Of course they were. But, was the value worth extended litigation? Doubtful. CNN and Sanchez came to an agreement that Sanchez could keep his Twitter community intact as long as he changed his handle to @ricksanchezNEWS.

Another recent case involved a claim by Dr. Linda Eagle that former co-workers changed her LinkedIn password after Eagle left the company, essentially preventing her from gaining access to her LinkedIn account. According to Eagle, she was unable to access her network of contacts, which damaged her efforts to find work. A federal judge rejected Eagle’s argument. Many professionals set up LinkedIn pages to complement their networking efforts and provide a way to keep in touch with people with whom they have formed relationships. Eagle’s case was unique, however. She was the founder of Edcomm, Inc. and created the LinkedIn page to promote the company and herself. She shared her password with an employee who helped keep the page up-to-date. After Eagle sold Edcomm and left the company, the new owners changed the password.
There are clear distinctions between Twitter and LinkedIn. A LinkedIn presence may be closely aligned with the company and used to maintain relationships with clients and prospective business partners through short posts with links to more detailed content or announcements. Twitter, on the other hand, requires quick, short, pithy messages and a pattern of re-Tweeting and responding to others. The problem is that both these cases are fact-specific and neither provides guidance as to how the courts will rule in future cases.

What should be included in a social media policy?

The policy should inform employees of why certain information cannot be shared via social media and contain bright line rules. Tell employees why it matters that trade secrets and personal feelings about another employee should not be shared either through company-sponsored sites or even personal sites that are updated during off hours. Be respectful. Do not represent the company or its representatives. Perhaps most importantly, use common sense, and if in doubt, do not post the comment.

Provide employees with specific guidance on personal vs. work-related social media. Establish ownership of content and business contacts. Try to not be overly broad. Employees should be allowed to maintain their personal social media accounts.  Instead, draw a bright line that lets employees know that work-related accounts are the property of the company. Include guidelines for giving credit to employees in posts – for instance, if an employee has a great idea and another Tweets about it, an attribute should be included.

Remain vigilant – new social media sites and technologies continue to pop up. Once a policy has been established, revisit it every four to six months; sooner if you see a need, and make revisions. Train employees frequently and have them acknowledge their understanding of the policy.
 
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