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Heads in the sand could lead to social media nightmares

Published on Friday, 05 Apr 2013
Pattie Walsh

The Problem

Social media has become an incredibly popular way for people across the globe to interact and communicate with each other. What is perhaps surprising, though, is how so many employers give so little thought to the challenges of social media in the workplace – until something goes wrong. Corporate reputations can be tarnished in an instant by one employee using the available mediums to wash an organisation’s dirty laundry in public.

Just as important – and just as harmful – is how easily social media can facilitate the transfer of customer and supplier details, and strategic plans, between organisations when employees, particularly senior leaders, switch jobs. While great people make a great organisation, they can also cause great harm when they leave.

The Research

DLA Piper’s Employment, Pensions and Benefits Group published a study called “Protecting Confidential Information: Trends and Tactics for Today’s Employer” at the end of 2012 based on data from 250 large businesses. While the data was obtained from within the UK, the statistics will almost certainly be consistent with the behaviour of organisations across Asia-Pacific.

Of the employers surveyed, 68 per cent were concerned or extremely concerned about the threats posed to their confidential information by social media; 61 per cent, however, had no social media policy. Furthermore, 63 per cent of employers did not regulate what information an employee could include on their LinkedIn profile, and 65 per cent did not stipulate that the business owns an employee’s LinkedIn connections. Even fewer employers address the ownership of an employee’s professional Twitter following.

Putting policies in place to protect an organisation when employees use social media inappropriately, or take confidential information with them when they leave, will not completely eliminate risks. However, the organisation that has worked out its approach and taken the steps needed to mitigate risks in this area will be better placed than the organisation that still has its head in the sand.

The Solution

There are some simple issues that need to be considered when constructing a social media policy. First of all, address whether access to social media sites is allowed during work hours. If so, explain the company’s purposes of allowing access and the level of tolerance towards personal use of social media. Also explain that the company monitors the use of social media (and the internet in general) in the workplace.

Be very clear about who owns what, such as LinkedIn contacts and the individual’s professional Twitter following. While this may not necessarily be enforced by a court if there is a dispute at a later time, if there is a clear written agreement which the employee has signed, it will at least provide some basis to begin the argument for ownership.

Stress the importance of employees taking responsibility for what they publish, even after work hours. This includes not posting false information or inappropriate photos or comments, and exercising general good judgment when posting online. State that employees should not post comments or pictures that are discriminatory, threatening, harassing or unlawful. Employees must understand that they do not stop representing their company after they get off work.

Discourage forced “friend”-ships between bosses and their subordinates. Employees should not feel pressured to be “friends” with their boss.

Demand that employees protect the employer’s confidential information at all times and across all mediums. Impose appropriate protection for trade secrets, proprietary information and intellectual property. Employees should also avoid using company logos or trademarks in their blogs, profiles or posts, unless such posts are business-related. Also state that employees should not use company e-mail to sign up for social media sites.

Insert a clear statement of how misuse of social media will be dealt with, such as how misuse can be grounds for discipline which could lead to termination of employment.

Finally, request that employees bring any work-related complaints to human resources before resorting to complaining on social media sites. Problems can only be solved if employees speak up about their grievances.

Pattie Walsh is a partner and head of DLA Piper’s Asia-Pacific employment pensions and benefits practice, and has a particular focus on multi-jurisdictional employment work. DLA Piper is a global law firm with 4,200 lawyers located in more than 30 countries throughout the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The information in this article should neither be relied on as legal advice nor be regarded as a substitute for detailed advice in individual cases. If advice concerning individual problems or other expert assistance is required, the service of a competent professional adviser should be sought.

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