This article focuses on the potential risks (and benefits) of social media. The law in this field is unclear, although this article attempts to present social media as merely a more developed form of communication over the Internet.
"Social media" is content that requires some user input and is disseminated in a social manner over the Internet. However, this rudimentary definition may not encompass the varied examples of social media, which include:
- Collaborative works or aggregations (such as Wikipedia or Digg);
- Communication and networking (such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn); or
- Multimedia sharing (such as Flickr or YouTube).
It is perhaps unhelpful to view social media as a "new or unknown entity that entirely changes all the rules". Consider that all of the informative functions that Facebook performs now are possible through use of basic web pages or email (albeit much slower and more time intensive). As a result, when your employees utilise social media in the course of their employment, they are performing a function that really isn't all that different from speaking to a client on the telephone (in the sense that an employee may inaccurately describe a service or provide a client with incorrect advice).
However, two key differences are the ease and speed of publication and the wider audience who may receive the information. With this in mind, the main risk is that your employees fail to see social media as attracting the same requirements of professionalism that your company would require in any other form of communication. Some applied examples are:
- An employee who is working on a confidential matter inadvertently providing compromising information to the public through status updates in Facebook;
- Companies that censor negative information on Wikipedia being publicly identified; or
- A disgruntled employee publishing commercial in confidence material on Wikileaks.
Benefits and Usage
Risks aside, social media represents a new avenue to reach potential partners and customers. However, there is no correct approach in each case and it is important to provide a clear policy for your employees in the use of social media at work.
While some companies have opted to completely block access to social media sites, others only allow access during certain times of the day. Alternatively, some companies that have a visible presence on the Internet might require an employee to be a point of contact for the company through social media channels. However, the most important requirement is that a clear policy is devised that assists the business while respecting the privacy and competence of your employees. Just because access to some social media sites is blocked at work, does not mean that employees will find other ways to occupy time if there are problems with engagement and career progression.
Social media is not necessarily the threat to productivity that it might seem. It is however a far more visible means for the public to gain information about business in ways that might not have been anticipated.
If you have concerns about how your employees have used social media at work, it would be beneficial to discuss it with them directly. Younger employees may also require guidance in what constitutes professional expression. While you may need to seek legal advice regarding serious breaches of confidence, a clear and accepted policy will go much further to promoting the responsible use of social media by your employees at work.