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Social Media Guidelines in the Office: What Works?

Employers have long competed for the focused attention of their workers; distractions have ranged from personal phone calls and emails to the vast treasure trove of non-work-related information just a Google search away on the Internet.

Social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter and others provide additional oh-so-tempting escapes from the cubicle during work hours. And not only can these sites eat up hours in a workday; they are, by their nature, public. This means that what your employee posts is out there for the world to see. Among our clients we see many employers asking themselves: How social is too social in the workplace? What are our employees posting about us—on the clock or off?

Following are several factors to consider as you define, implement and/or refine your company’s social media guidelines:

The time factor. Is social media a significant time-waster for employees? According to a recent studyby Salary.com, the answer is yes. Of the 3,200 people polled, 64 percent confessed they spend time each workday visiting websites that have nothing to do with the job. The majority said they spend 1-2 hours a week in these alternative universes. Facebook was the number one site visited, with 41 percent of survey participants hitting this social media giant with some regularity. Other sites on the tour include the usual suspects—LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google+, Amazon, Twitter and Pinterest—to name a few.

A solution that some employers adopt is to filter access to certain websites from company computers. Do employees object to this big-brother tactic? An overwhelming majority of participants in the previously-mentioned survey (79 percent) said it wouldn’t affect their decision to work for a company.

As you ponder this, consider that in many situations the lines have blurred between on-the-clock and after-work time; employees are putting in 60-hour (or longer) work weeks, or are on call beyond standard work hours. So maybe it’s fair to let them stay connected to their non-work life during the day. Another consideration is that a short break to check in on personal matters once or twice a day might actually reduce stress and contribute to productivity. And for tech-forward companies—companies that spend their days designing mobile apps, games and other technology—digital social activity may be part of the employee’s job description.

Also, don’t forget, regulating what’s accessed on the company computer doesn’t address what the employee does with his or her smartphone or tablet.

The “what’s being posted” factor. When workers post updates to Facebook and other social media sites from work, employers have more to worry about than just time wasted behind the desk. There is the risk that an employee will broadcast company-damaging information—or information that is protected by nondisclosure agreements or laws such as those covering HIPAA.

Clearly some topics are legitimately off-limits, and to a certain degree, employers’ social media policies can prohibit employees from tweeting or posting about these matters. However when crafting your company’s social media policy don’t step on the toes of the National Labor Relations Act(NLRA). The NLRA is designed to protect nonsupervisory employees’ rights to form, join or assist labor organizations. So while the “I hate my job” post won’t warm an employer’s heart, the employee’s right to publicize that sentiment is protected under the Act.

There’s also the “when is it being posted” factor, harkening back to the public nature of social media activity. Customers may decide to take their patronage elsewhere if they see their account rep posting to Facebook while he or she is supposed to be following up on an issue.

The common sense factor. Common sense and employee/employer trust are crucial in this world of ever-expanding connectivity. Regardless of the chosen Internet and social media policy in a given office, clarity and consistency are key. It makes sense to set clear guidelines that allow employees to use social media sparingly and responsibly while at work. When employees understand exactly what is and is not allowed, many issues disappear.

While the sheer accessibility of the Web makes keeping employees on task a challenge, finding common ground is not impossible. As social media expands and evolves, businesses may be best served by striking a compromise with employees and the Internet.

Always consult an employment practices attorney before setting any policies in place. Precedent and law concerning social media change with each case settled against employers.

Does your company have a policy on social media? What’s working for you? What challenges are you having?