Social Media Policy – Does Your Company Need One?

Dr. Yuval Karniel, Adv. and Aya Inbar, Adv. of Shibolet & Co., Tel-Aviv, discuss the reasons as to why Social Media Policies are becoming more and more popular with employers.

Dr. Yuval Karniel (partner) heads Shibolet’s Internet and Communication group along with partner Itai Leshem. He is an expert in the field of communications, a senior lecturer and researcher in communications, society and law. His main focus is on copyrights, Internet and technology, freedom of speech and crises communication. Dr. Karniel is the Chairman of the Ethics Committee for the Second Authority for Broadcasting and in addition, he serves as a panelist for the Israeli Internet Association in resolutions regarding domain names. 

Aya Inbar is an attorney is involved in representing clients in a variety of intellectual property issues matters, including patents, copyrights, trademarks and internet law. Aya obtained her LLM degree in Intellectual Property from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

The Development of Social Media Policies

The growth of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has created a new workplace reality for both employers and employees. The lines between private and public, between home and work and between one’s personal life and professional life are being blurred with every new player entering the world of social networks. Many employees are answering personal emails, engaging in chats and forums and sending and receiving SMS messages even when they are at work.

Social media is quickly becoming a major form of communication. Friends at work are likely to be friends on these networks, and some of the work communication takes place, often without management’s knowledge, on the convenient and friendly social networks. Just like in the past when companies had to figure out how to deal with email communication, now they have to figure out how to deal with communications through social media.

Do you need a Social Media Policy?

It is clear that this new reality requires some type of evaluation by employers. On the one hand, this is a chance to strengthen the connections between employees, and an opportunity for positive exposure for the organization and the brand that represents it.

On the other hand, the presence of employees on these social networks poses a threat as employee’s time spent on these networks means less time at work, and comes at the expense of work. One recent research in England show that employees spend an average of 30 minutes a day surfing social networks in the work place, an activity that results in loss of 12.5 million U.S. Dollars.

In addition, an employee’s activities on these networks can lead to disclosure of sensitive information by the employee about the employer, clients and their colleagues. In many cases the information is released without any awareness on the part of the employee who innocently shares information about his daily activities.  Recently, Microsoft Seattle was forced to dismiss one of its most senior employees who disclosed sensitive and confidential information about future developments of the company. The employee unintentionally shared information on Linked-in, which he is a member of. A blogger, who was methodically following activities of Microsoft employees, immediately spotted the sensitive information, published it prominently on his website and from there it was a short way to the headlines of the financial papers.

Activity on social networks can expose employees and employers to lawsuits by parties who may have been damaged by information disclosed or alleged through social networks, on grounds such as defamation, violation of privacy issues or copyright infringement. It is important to state that this type of activity by employees, which may expose their employers to lawsuits, can be done during the employee’s free time as well. Many workers identify themselves on social networks as employees of a certain company. Their professional identity is interwoven with their personal one and forms part of their profile on the Internet. These employees may dispense advice, professional opinions, or express their opinions which later may be attributed to their employer.

 Employers need to recognize this reality and formulate clear policies to deal with it. The policies need to be made in conjunction with the employees and need to be transparent and public.

What is a Good Social Media Policy?

Social Media Policy (SMP) is becoming an essential tool in management of personnel in the Internet era. A social media policy outlines for employees the corporate guidelines or principles of communicating in the online world.

The technologies and the faces of the online world change frequently; this is a factor which may require prompt adjustments to your policy. From a legal prospective, there are several key points that should always be considered when writing a Social Media Policy. One key point is the right to privacy. It is important that the policy defines the right (or the lack thereof) of privacy when it comes to using social media. If the employer makes it clear that he reserves the right to monitor the use of social media in the work place the employee will have no expectation to privacy in this area.

Another point to consider is other company policies such as anti-harassment and ethics. It is important to clarify that those policies extend to all forms of communication, including social media, both inside and outside the workplace. Employers need to make sure that the policies cover all of the employees of the company and make sure that the employees are aware that such policies exist and can be enforced at any time. The policy should be very clear about what an employee is allowed and not allowed to do when using social media, in the work place or outside (especially if it can affect the company). Copyright and trademark issues should also be addressed to prevent possible infringements by employees that may impact the company in the future.

A smart policy can help both the employee and employer, and may prevent crisis situations and damages that are inherent to irresponsible activity on the Internet.  It is important to remember that this type of policy involves complex legal issues such as rights of employees, protection of privacy, protecting confidential and proprietary information and intellectual property rights. The policy must therefore be formulated together with personnel, the marketing team and legal advisors.

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