HR Guide to Social Networking Policy

The Facebook Policy You Never Knew You Needed

Right now, someone at your office is posting a message on their Facebook wall or sending out a Twitter tweet. You may write off these internet-based social networking tools as innocuous but they can pose serious legal risks if left untamed without an iron-clad employee social networking policy. Don’t believe me? Sit down and I will tell you a tale of a restaurant chain.


Why Does Your Company Need a Social Networking Policy?


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Houston’s, a nationwide restaurant chain, found itself in hot water after accessing a private MySpace page created by employees to vent about management. The venting sessions came to an abrupt close when an employee showed the MySpace page to a manager who then terminated the responsible employees. The employees sued the restaurant chain and it was the jury that aired the final gripe finding that the employer had violated the employees’ privacy and the federal Stored Communications Act. The price tag for this indiscretion: Over $9,000 to the employees and a pending claim for $120,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

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Proprietary Secrets Shared Through Social Networking

If you think those court costs are expensive, consider the woes of internet giant, Google. A mere two weeks after hiring an employee, Google learned that its new-hire was publicly divulging proprietary tidbits on his personal blog. In his blog, which was geared toward the employee’s friends and family, the employee gushed over Google’s employee training programs, confidential planned product offerings, and its financial situation. To make matters worse, Google then garnered national media attention when it fired the aspiring blogger.

These stories are a wake-up call to human resources professionals the world-over that corporate policies regarding Facebook and other social networking sites are a must. If your company wants to avoid its firing practices being splashed across the pages of USA Today, or your company would prefer to minimize potential legal exposure (and pricey legal fees), then read on.

Internet Gab Fests: Keep Your Company Safe with a Social Networking Policy

The meteoric rise in popularity of online social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace has left human resources professionals in unchartered territory. According to a 2005 survey by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics and the Health Care Compliance Association, nearly 25 percent of employers have disciplined employees for improper use of online social networking tools but only 50 percent of employers have an employer policy for use of social networking sites. Simply put, employers are ignoring this internet revolution to their peril.

Have no fear. Here is a road map to help you navigate the evolving landscape of online social networking and begin to craft an appropriate social networking policy for your company. Consideration of the following six questions is an excellent first step to protect your company from committing a potentially embarrassing and expensive Facebook faux paus.

1. Are we re-inventing the wheel? Before launching into policy-drafting mode, dust off your existing HR policies related to employee internet usage. You may be surprised to find that your existing policies will give you a solid foundation upon which you can build your online social networking policy.

2. What’s our track record? Determine whether your company has disciplined or made an employment decision about an employee based on inappropriate internet-based social networking activity. This will enable you to determine whether your company has already been applying a consistent approach in handling renegade bloggers or MySpace mischief. Also, dwelling on the past will help you learn from any previous mistakes and build a finely-tuned policy to apply in the future.

3. What do our internal experts think? Early into this process, it is advisable to invite input from the people in your company who will actually be affected by this social networking policy. Consider convening a working group of “stakeholders,” e.g. human resources, employees, information technology, supervisors, etc., to bring their particular point of view to the table.

4. Does this make sense for us? Creating an employer policy addressing the use of online social networking is certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. Your online social networking policy should reflect the unique needs and values of your company. It may be instructive to revisit your company’s mission statement or the introduction to your employee handbook. These statements tend to set the tone for the employer-employee relationship and your online social networking policy should echo these>

5. How will we tell employees about the policy? Once you have finished crafting your online social networking policy, don’t just put it on the shelf. Ensure that employees and supervisors are educated about the new policy and provide training, if needed.

6. Should we talk to a lawyer? Yes. The parameters of your online social networking policy may also be subject to several legal constraints. For example, a state employer will need to be wary of infringing its employees’ First Amendment rights. An employer with a unionized workforce, however, will need to consider whether such a policy would violate its collective bargaining agreement. With the help of your able attorney, you can avoid these litigation landmines.


Merisa Heu-Weller, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

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