Biz Basics

By Beau Denton February 1, 2011

Friend or Foe?

In an increasingly digital age, employers are being confronted with new challenges about how to handle social media. Last year, Manatee County suspended two teachers for Facebook-related actions. When the school board proposed policies limiting what employees can say on social networks, the Manatee Education Association responded with a lawsuit that could—like many other lawsuits across the country—reach federal courts before being resolved.

Chris Sensenig, an employment and labor law attorney with the Sensenig Law Firm in Sarasota, says one reason for the volume of drawn-out lawsuits and high-profile scandals is that “these are new issues.” Digital communication allows for statements that might otherwise remain private to be broadcast where anyone can see—including other employees, competitors and clients. This is of immediate concern for employers because online rants “can certainly be an injury to your brand,” says Sensenig.

But when employers respond to a disgruntled former employee’s posts, or attempt to limit the online activity of current staff, employees often feel that their free speech rights are being challenged. That’s where the complicated litigation comes in. To avoid that, businesses need to draft new policies that specifically address social media like Facebook and Twitter. Those policies, says Sensenig, should state the type of online activity that is permitted at the office or on office-related devices, the type of online comments about the company that are prohibited and the specific consequences for both. She adds that it’s important to “be clear about what you’re trying to protect. If you try to control everything, you control nothing.”


Steps for drafting a social media policy

Define the consequences. High-profile cases might involve disgruntled employees bashing their company, but many stem from an employee sharing too much information without realizing it—which may just require a one-on-one conversation. Decide your consequences ahead of time and make them a clear part of the policy.

Establish a “friending” policy. If you don’t want supervisors following or “friending” their subordinates online, that needs to be clear up front and enforced across the board.

Incorporate current policies. Employees should know that your current harassment, discrimination and confidentiality policies will apply to their social media interactions.

Consider legal advice. Much of this may be uncharted territory for small businesses, and new policies are likely to stir up more questions. Can you reserve the right to monitor a smartphone if it’s used for work, or establish a policy that outlasts termination to cover litigation fees? Sensenig says problems can come from policies that are too vague, but “You don’t want it to be draconian”—one employer faxed Sensenig a 17-page Facebook policy. You may want to hire an employment law professional to make sure you cover your bases without overwhelming your employees.

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