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How to create a social media policy

According to a recent survey, social networking sites are a part of everyday life for employees, with 66 percent acknowledging that they visit sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr at least once a week.

Although an employee's use of these sites may appear on its face to be a personal activity in which the employer should not interfere, the reality is that an employee's private use of such sites may have consequences that impact their employer.

Is an employee who engages in social networking for personal reasons at work being productive for her employer? Is an employee's personal rant about his employer on his Facebook page placing his employer's public reputation at risk? Is an employee's personal post on a social media site regarding a client business meeting placing her employer at risk for disclosure of confidential, proprietary or trade secret information?

Notwithstanding the expanding gray area between an employee's private use of social networking sites and an employer's professional consequences, only 22 percent of employers have a policy in place to control their employees' use of social media. This statistic is an alarming concern, given the significant risks and consequences that exist from the use of social media.

So what should employers do about this problem? Although there is no bullet-proof protection for employers, they can help to avoid or mitigate some legal and ethical consequences by establishing an appropriate social media policy that fits their unique culture.

Employers would certainly be wise not to simply copy a social media policy off the Internet. The policy for a small employer may be different than that of a large employer. The policy for a school may be different than that for a for-profit business.

For example, a policy for a school may prohibit staff from "friending" students while a for-profit business may encourage staff to engage with clients and potential clients through social media as a form of professional networking - albeit with guidelines concerning proprietary and confidential information in place.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. On a general level, almost all employers should consider the same common factors when developing a policy:

• First, may the organization's employees engage in social media for personal reasons at work and, if so, are there any limits and how will the employer enforce such restrictions?

• Second, given that an employee can tarnish an employer's positive public reputation through social media activity, the employer should consider guidelines for employees' use of social networking sites.

• Third, the policy should address whether an employee is permitted to identify himself as a representative of the organization when expressing his personal opinions about the company.

• Fourth, whether the employee must include a disclaimer in his personal blogs and posts that the opinions expressed are solely his own.

• Fifth, given the liability that can result from an employee's unscrupulous use of social media, the employer should train and periodically remind employees of all other policies that may be implicated by one's online activity, such as the anti-harassment policy, anti-discrimination policy and the confidentiality policy.

Underlying any social media rules for the office should be a policy about the employer's intention to monitor employees' use of electronic communications at work. If employees acknowledge that nothing they do on their work computers is private, the employer has likely already gone a long way towards nipping in the bud inappropriate use of social media at the office.

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