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Who Owns Your Social Media - Your Organization or Its Employees?

Employers and their employees set up accounts and communicate via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks as a common practice today. Employers use social media to boost business and many are reaping the benefits.

Anthony DeRosa is a social media editor for Reuters news service and works to both share content on the Internet and help his co-workers do the same. According to DeRosa, "Social media now is not an option, it's a necessity. A couple of years ago that wasn't the case, but I think now people have to be a part of it, whether it's one social network or a couple of them."

Social media usage presents risks in addition to the rewards. Although a social networking presence may help an organization appear friendly and approachable rather than as an aloof and detached corporate entity, one angry rant posted by an employee or the over-sharing of corporate information can create problems for the organization.

Take the case of a former four-year employee of a website that reviews mobile gadgets. During his employment, he acquired up to 17,000 Twitter followers on his employer's account. When he left his employment to work for competitors, he switched the name of the account (a move that Twitter allows) to a personal account. He then shared articles that he had written for his former employer with other tech sites. His former employer is now suing him and asking for damages equal to $2.50 per month for every Twitter follower he took with him - approximately $42,500 per month.

The employee asserts that his former employer told him the account would remain his.

Cases like this make the point that employers who want to protect the organization's social media accounts need to have a written policy to make sure employees understand how accounts are to be managed.

One step than can help protect the employer is to make sure that more than one employee maintains the employer's profiles on the social media sites. Apart from ownership, however, there are problems that arise when employees embarrass the employer or go on a rant about what they think of the employer, other employees or customers.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) warns employers that social media policies should not be so sweeping that they prohibit the kinds of activity protected by federal labor law. Discussions of wages or working conditions among employees can be protected. Doug Ross for CNN, "Employers, workers navigate pitfalls of social media," www.cnn.com (Feb. 7, 2012).

Commentary and Checklist

When the lines between employees' personal and professional use of social networking become blurred, there is a risk to the organization and its proprietary information. Make sure your organization has clear-cut policies and practices in place and that your employees are thoroughly trained on these policies.

A uniform policy may not be enough to address the risks associated with employees whose job duties are entwined in social media - when one of their primary job duties is to promote their employer through social media. In this case, the employee believed that all he had to do to perform a similar job for a competitor was to change the name of his account. The employer had a different understanding.

The employer may have avoided the lawsuit with a specific document outlining exactly what would happen when the employee left, including how to address the change in personnel with account followers, how account names would change, ownership of the account, ownership of the departing employee's work product, and prohibitions against use of the organization's information to compete with it.

This Site offers a model Equipment, Internet and Network Usage Policy. To determine whether your organization has access to the policy, click on Model Policies in the Knowledge Vault.

Here are some guidelines to follow once you have your policies in place:
  • Make sure all employees and new hires acknowledge and understand the policies.
  • Make sure employees know that they have no expectation of privacy with regard to communications on employer-owned devices or networks and, also, with regard to communications they post on blogs, social networking sites and any other public platforms that identify them.
  • Try to follow-up with periodic training if possible. Training should include examples of behavior that would violate the policies.
  • Enforce the policies consistently. As with any policy or procedure, inconsistent enforcement can lead to discrimination charges.
  • Encourage employees to report violations. Provide a safe method or chain of command for reporting.
  • When a report of misconduct is made, investigate the claim for accuracy. Remember, you should consider your employees innocent until proven otherwise and retaliation is always unacceptable.
  • Seek the advice of an attorney before making employment decisions based on social media publications.
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