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The Privacy Advisor | A Balancing Act: Getting Your Social Media Policy Right Related reading: Federal Ministry of the Interior: Guidelines for new employee privacy law


Roughly 16 minutes out of every hour spent online are dedicated to social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Social networking sites like these have become a major part of our culture today. As a result, lines between personal and professional spaces have begun to blur, creating a tangled web of privacy rights, cybersecurity risks and human resources legalities that employers must address.

As the personal/professional web becomes even more tangled, it’s vital for employers to understand ethical and legal boundaries that protect their business from cyber-attacks and reputation damage while also balancing employees’ privacy rights. Employees’ online habits can affect your business, so it's important to carefully examine what should go into your company’s social media policy.

Employees Using Social Media: Issues, Concerns and Risks

While social media is predominantly perceived as a personal activity, poor security habits and inappropriate use of networking sites can have a lasting, damaging effect on a business’ security and reputation.

Velocity Digital reported that 25 percent of Facebook users don’t bother with any privacy settings, meaning anyone, including criminals mining social sites to steal identities, can view information on their profile. If an employee’s identity is stolen, it can be used to log into a company’s network, potentially exposing sensitive customer data or even proprietary information.

For example, Steve Stasiukonis, founder of Secure Network Technologies, decided to test his clients’ network security. He created a fake online identity and used it to join a company’s Facebook page to mine data like email addresses and names. He used this information to send fake phishing emails to employees, asking for network log-in information. He had an unbelievable average response rate of 45 to 50 percent, with employees giving up log-in information and passwords to company networks, which held valuable information such as customer credit card data, intellectual property and other log-in credentials that provide access to deeper network information.

And beyond identity and data theft, inappropriate employee social media use can also damage brand reputation. Provocative or otherwise inappropriate personal employee photos, insensitive or even slanderous posts can reflect poorly on your business.

How can businesses control what employees post on social media? In short, they can’t. At least not entirely. Employees have privacy rights that must be respected. Since online networking can be used for business and pleasure, it’s important for businesses to know where they can draw the line when creating social media policies.

The Legalities of Employees’ Privacy Rights

The most complicated thing about creating an effective social media policy is sifting through the gray areas, such as defining what an employee has the right to post online and what an employer has the right to monitor.

In regard to protecting your business' reputation, the National Labor Relations ACT (NLRA) does not protect employees who post maliciously false, offensive or inappropriate comments about their employer or clients. However, the NLRA does protect employees’ rights to communicate with each other online about improving the conditions of their jobs. Jessica Miller-Merrell, a human resources consultant and founder at Blogging4Jobs, advises using a monitoring service that alerts the business if the company name is used alongside certain keywords online.

Depending on the circumstances, businesses can be accountable for an employee’s social media postings. Washington University in St. Louis Law Prof. Neil Richards said if he hosts a class discussion board on Google+, the university could be liable for anything said within that discussion.

Every state is different, so when creating social media policies, it is in your best interest to consult employer legislation in your state. Another great resource to use when establishing workplace policies is the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference. It has social media policies listed  by state.

When it comes to protecting the security of your business, you’ll have the most success by educating employees on the “hows” and “whys” of practicing secure online habits. Encourage employees to decrease the possibility of identity theft by making online profiles as private as possible. This first and foremost will protect the employee from the hassle of having to spend time, money and resources on resolving a stolen identity and will also protect the business from any associated risks. Employees should also keep a clean professional online presence, as many companies use social media as a means for hiring. In 2013, a Jobvite survey found that 42 percent of companies have reconsidered job candidates based on the content of their social profiles, including Facebook, Twitter and Google+. While it’s important to the business for employees to keep a positive reputation online, it is also in the employees’ best interests.

 Social Media Policy Best Practices

When creating a social media policy to protect your business from security and reputational damage, remember to keep employee privacy top-of-mind. Here are three best practices to consider when creating your business’ social media policy:

  • Require that company credentials are different from personal credentials.
    Username and password reuse happens all the time online. Since you cannot control employees’ personal social networking log-ins, protect your network by requiring employees to use unique company usernames and passwords that are not similar to the usernames and passwords they use for social networking sites. Better yet, require password updates every few months.
  • Be clear on what employees can and cannot share about the business within their networks.
    Be as transparent as possible with employees about what they can and cannot share online about the company. Can they connect with clients online and on what networks? What preapproved content can they share with clients, family and friends?
  • Use monitoring to ensure that no sensitive information is shared.
    Minimize risk by monitoring what is being said online about your company. This helps to make sure employees are sticking to the policy and that no sensitive information is shared online.

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