The New York Times recently approached Daliah Saper to write an article for their “Room for Debate” opinion section. The topic surrounded employers’ growing concerns about their employees’ online behavior. Read her contribution below:
APRIL 2, 2013
I regularly field calls from business owners who are nervous about the potential ramifications of employees’ activities online. As part of an overall risk management strategy, they want me to help write strict, exhaustive social media policies. Before churning out a 10-page handbook encompassing a litany of “dos” and “don’ts,” I like to ask: Can you currently dictate who your employees talk to in person, when they can talk to them, and what they can say? The answer is typically “no.” (In a heavily regulated industry like financial services, the answer might be “sometimes.”) I usually direct these businesses to focus on hiring employees with good common sense, rather than on writing and enforcing an onerous social media policy.
That’s because most social media policies are merely rehashed versions of existing employee contracts (the usual noncompetes, nondisclosures, etc.) or are full of paternalistic reminders like “Don’t post pictures of yourself drunk.” Even if a company did not create a “don’t act stupid” policy, it could easily fire or discipline its employees for posting inappropriate photos to Facebook or disclosing proprietary information on Twitter. Employees, in turn, should know that their conduct in public – including social media accounts visible to outsiders – can expose them to career repercussions.
While I’m not a huge advocate of social media policies, I am a huge proponent of social media training. This can educate both businesses and employees about the legal implications of social media. For example, companies should teach their employees about copyright law as it relates to sharing content; they should explain the basics of defamation law so an employee doesn’t inadvertently write a defamatory review about a competitor; they should know the F.T.C. disclosure rules governing advertisement. A smart company will focus on the roles and responsibilities of its employees, empowering them to effectively do their jobs. The methods and mediums matter less.