How to avoid the pitfalls and liabilities that can accompany employees’ use of social media

Melissa Hulsey, President and CEO, Ashton

Whether they’re using it to market the business, keep in touch with customers, or connect with colleagues, most owners can attest to the business benefits of social media. But when it comes to unregulated employee use of this powerful tool, that’s when businesses can run into trouble.

From inadvertently posting confidential company information to intentionally bashing an employer in a public online forum, there are certain liabilities that social media can create that business owners should be aware of and prepare for.

Human resources departments should also be careful of their use of social media to screen potential employees; they could be opening the company up to discrimination claims from potential hires.

Smart Business learned more from Melissa Hulsey, president and CEO of Ashton, about how employers can implement policies to avert some of the pitfalls that can arise as a result of employees’ use of social media.

What are the dangers or liabilities businesses face with employee use of social media?

There are many issues that can arise out of the misuse of social media, and your company’s hiring process is one of the first areas to review. Many people post political views, marital status, social views and photos that could display disabilities on their social media sites. None of this information can legally be used to discriminate against hiring a potential candidate. A good practice is to not view any social media sites prior to interviewing. This way, a ‘blind’ selection process is used to determine who will be considered for each job. Make sure your human resources department and hiring managers do not deviate from this practice.

Trouble can also arise when employees put their employer at legal risk with their postings. Revealing confidential information or stating internal company affairs online can do damage on many levels. Employees need to be made aware that the first amendment right does not protect us while we are at work. Be careful what is put online; it cannot be taken back.

Should employers try to limit or prohibit use of social media in the workplace?

The fact is it would be impossible to completely prohibit the use of social media at work. With smart phones and like devices, employees are going to check Facebook and Twitter and look at YouTube while on company time. I say get over it, get used to it and embrace and work with it. Offer a list of company-sponsored blogs, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn groups, Facebook profiles, etc. and encourage your employees to promote your business. Social media is a very powerful tool that can be used to a company’s advantage. Have a policy that limits use, but recognize that, just like the personal cell phone, social media is here to stay.

What kinds of policies should employers put in place to inform employees about their rights and responsibilities?

Keep it simple. A complicated policy will be ignored. Many companies include no personal use of work computers, Internet monitoring and no free speech while at work in these policies. Do not, however, ban access completely. Involve your staff in coming up with a policy that works with your unique work environment.

And always think before you post. For example, if you have a business event and a photo is posted of someone sitting on a fellow employee’s lap, this could result in a sexual harassment charge or an angry spouse. Employees also need to be made aware that their conduct after hours can affect their job. Many states are passing all-encompassing ‘off duty conduct’ laws that can potentially prohibit an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for online actions. Georgia does not currently have such a law, so employees that complain about their boss, co-workers, work environment, clients, etc. can be disciplined up to and including termination. If you do business in multiple states, check the law in each one prior to writing your policy.

How should policies be communicated and enforced?

All policies need to be communicated in writing. Add this to an existing handbook and make sure employees sign off that they have read it and understand what is expected of them. When enforcing social media policies, be consistent. If you discipline one person for posting Facebook updates at work, make sure you reprimand all equally.

How should employers handle damage control from employees misusing social media?

Have a crisis strategy in place before anything happens. This should include appointing a crisis team of trusted employees to evaluate and possibly respond to a situation. Monitor sites to continually know what is being said about your brand. When responding, do it timely and with a consistent message. As in sports, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Happy employees equals happy customers, so foster an environment that encourages a positive workplace. This will result in good will online and off.

Melissa Hulsey is the president and CEO of Ashton. Reach her at (770) 419-1776 or [email protected]