Social networking sites: Networking or not working?

Q What is corporate social networking?

A There should be a clear distinction between ‘corporate social networking’, which is useful to the business, and ‘social networking’, which is for personal use.

The explosion in popularity of social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace has spilled over into the business world as a means of connecting employees, networking with business contacts and even recruiting.

Businesses and organisations are using corporate social networking in numerous ways, from bringing staff across different offices together through networks on Facebook, to holding meetings in the online virtual world Second Life. As well as bringing colleagues together to network, it is also being used by businesses to good effect to network with useful contacts and prospects through industry-focused blogs.

Q What are the risks of using corporate social networking for employers?

A While setting up networking forums on a service such as Facebook could be an extremely useful and cost-effective way of encouraging teams operating in different offices to communicate, it also throws up a number of issues that employers need to address.

Many high-profile organisations have banned staff from using Facebook and other similar sites for personal use because of the amount of time being spent online instead of working. So if such sites are introduced as a corporate social networking tool, businesses run the risk of staff spending more time on them than is justified by the value to the business.

Even worse, these sites can become a negative forum for complaining or gossiping about work. According to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) – formerly the Department for Trade and Industry – inappropriate internet and e-mail use is the second largest cause of reported security incidents for businesses. The findings show that more than 50% of organisations have reported misuse of internet resources, with the two most common being access to inappropriate websites (41%) and excessive surfing (36%).

Organisations also face similar risks to those that came with the introduction of e-mail. We can all remember incidents of embarrassing e-mails that had been sent to one person and ended up going halfway around the world and being splashed across the newspapers.

Q What can employers do to minimise these risks?

A Be clear about the parameters of corporate social networking, ensuring that any online forums are managed carefully and policed to check content.

Remind staff they are representing the company in any corporate social networking they undertake. According to US research involving 300 IT decision-makers, almost 20% of organisations have disciplined an employee for violating blog or message board policies in the past year, while 7.1% of companies fired an employee for such behaviour, and 10% had to investigate the disclosure of financial information via a blog or message board posting. For example, Delta Airlines attendant Ellen Simonetti, known as ‘Queen of the Sky’, brought legal action in the US after she lost her job apparently for posting “inappropriate images” of herself wearing company uniform on a blog.

Q Should organisations have a policy on corporate social networking and, if so, what should it say?

A Employers should extend their existing e-mail and internet-use policies to include both corporate social networking and personal use of social networking sites.

The policy should:

  • Be clear about the kind of information that can be communicated using corporate social networking. Businesses should be very cautious about discussing confidential matters using unsecured methods of communication. Not only could this help competitors, but the organisation could find itself in breach of data protection legislation.
  • Ensure staff record any useful contacts acquired through corporate social networking by having clear systems in place. This will go some way to ensuring that any activity benefits the business in the long term, even if the employee leaves.
  • Be clear about what is considered to be legitimate corporate social networking, so that the business doesn’t get into a situation where staff think it is OK to chat to their friends during work time.
  • Ensure staff are aware they are representing the business in any corporate social networking. Any defamatory statements made by employees about the company should be treated as a disciplinary offence, and this should be clearly communicated in the policy document.

Q Is there any legislation governing how businesses can use social networking?

A Under new laws outlined in the EU Directive on Unfair Business-to-Consumer Commercial Practices, businesses will soon be prevented from “falsely representing oneself as a consumer”, meaning that companies will no longer be able to post fake entries on blogs or message boards that imply they are made by customers. In light of this new legislation, companies should ensure they do not use such methods in their marketing campaigns. It’s also important to inform staff not to post such statements because they could be interpreted as having been made on behalf of the company.

The directive states that member countries should apply measures enforcing its provisions by 12 December 2007, but the BERR has advised that regulations implementing this directive will come into force in the UK by April 2008.

Owen Warnock is an employment law partner at Eversheds
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Social networking sites: friend or foe?

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