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How much should I worry about employees using social networking sites?

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in Career Management,Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Workplace Communication

Q. I heard that Facebook use is really picking up, but I don’t think most of our employees are that tech-savvy. Should I be concerned about my employees accessing social networking sites while at work?

A. Yes. Recent statistics indicate that social networking sites are hugely popular right now and chances are high that your employees are using them, too.

According to some sources, the number of Facebook users has been doubling every six months. Twitter usage increased by a staggering 1,382% between 2008 and 2009. LinkedIn has become the go-to site for professional networking and job candidate research.

The demographics of these multiplying users are particularly remarkable. According to IStrategy Labs, the 35-to-54-year-old population, which probably makes up a significant percentage of your workforce, has been the fastest-growing segment of new Facebook users. That age group was experiencing a 276.4% growth rate in late 2008 and early 2009.

Employee use of social networking sites creates a number of important issues for employers. Aside from a number of positive uses of these sites, employers should be aware that employees can and have used these sites to gripe about their bosses and the workplace, make harassing and defamatory posts relating to their co-workers or the company as a whole and disclose confidential or sensitive information.

In short, unchecked, uncontrolled employee access to social networking sites can result in a loss of productivity, negative publicity for your company, the leaking of confidential or sensitive information and even legal claims. 

How can I control social networking usage?

Q. Accepting that my employees do have Facebook or other social networking site accounts, what do I need to know about the law in this area?

A. Because the explosion in the use of social networking sites is a relatively recent phenomenon, the law in the area is still evolving. Nevertheless, recent cases reveal some emerging hot topics and trends.

Probably the most litigated issue in recent months has centered on the question of employee privacy, and specifically what employers can do to monitor employees’ use of social networking sites.

These cases indicate that courts are starting to take the position that employers’ monitoring rights have their limits, and that employees do have a certain expectation of privacy in their use of the Internet while at work.

Generally, employers should be wary of blanket “no expectation of privacy” policies and practices. Think twice before accessing employees’ personal, password-protected e-mail and social networking accounts, especially if it’s not certain there’s a business reason to do so. 

What should a social networking policy include?

Q. Should I implement a social networking policy? What should such a policy include?

A. It’s a good idea for most employers to address social networking in a written policy format. Your social networking provisions should, among other things:

  • Establish the company’s ownership of electronic systems and the general expectation that they are intended for business use. Note that you can monitor employee computer use.
  • Address the company’s expectation that when employees use social networking sites, they must comply with the employee handbook, including policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment and those covering confidential information and trade secrets.
  • Set standards for how employees should identify themselves vis-à-vis the company in their social networking sites. Require them to disclaim their views as nonattributable to the company.
  • Include a disciplinary component that expressly states that policy violations are grounds for discipline, up to and including immediate termination of employment. 

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