Employers need to set rules on use of electronic social media

Is that employee preparing the financial report the boss requested or checking out YouTube to see that amazing triple play that was all over sports radio this morning?

Did that tweet just sent out over Twitter close the deal with a key client, or was the sender just chatting up her recipe for blueberry pancakes?

Millions of such questions are being asked in the ever-expanding world of social networking, which has been a boon to countless businesses but also ranks as a tempting personal communication tool that can cut down on productivity in the workplace.

Experts say the wildfire growth of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social media has caught some companies off-guard. Instant communication is great, but how can businesses control personal tweeting, Web surfing and friend-collecting on company time?

“It’s like any other business decision. You have to lay out the ground rules,” said Jessica Hawthorne, employment-law counsel for the Sacramento-based California Chamber of Commerce. “Companies have to establish what can and cannot be done in the workplace. These things do need to be thought out, because it’s happening so fast.”

Hawthorne recommends that companies establish a policy on using electronic social media. She said wording of such a policy needs to be very specific, right down to what media or devices belong to the company, and what will or won’t be tolerated for personal use.

Many ground rules are obvious: Don’t plan your vacation on the Web during company time, don’t tweet your mundane office tasks to the world and stop looking for your high school sweetheart on Facebook while at your cubicle.

In other words, don’t use company equipment – or your own equipment, including an iPhone – to conduct personal business during the workday.

Other things employers must consider are not so obvious: Will you allow employees to conduct personal business on a laptop or iPhone during in-office breaks or in the company lunchroom? What is the dividing line between business and personal use? How many personal calls are allowed?

“In some cases, you have to ask, ‘Is that really feasible?’ ” Hawthorne said. “But there are good reasons for employers to be concerned.”

For example, what if an employee is watching a YouTube video that nearby co-workers find offensive? What if you are communicating with someone in a way that strikes fellow employees as sexist or racist?

“That’s why companies have to make it very clear what’s OK,” Hawthorne said. “The equipment might belong to the employee, but harassment and other workplace policies apply if other employees are affected by what is happening around them.”

Spelling out rules in a workplace that doesn’t depend on social media to operate is fairly straightforward. It’s more complex in workplaces that incorporate networking tools.

Communications businesses are increasingly turning to networking sites. That includes The Sacramento Bee, where more than 30 editors and staffers weigh in regularly on Twitter.

At the Sacramento public relations firm of Merlot Marketing, President and CEO Debi Hammond said workers regularly use blogs and tweets to promote the firm and its clients, as well as share information on industry developments, colleagues and competitors.

“Today, the utilization of social media tools in our profession is not an option, it’s a necessity,” Hammond said. “One of the greatest strengths that we as PR professionals bring to the social media table is our ability to apply PR principles to the new communication model. It’s imperative that we … raise the bar with regard to how we communicate via social media.

“This means it’s not enough to know about social media; marketing and PR pros must know the ins and outs of the communication method.”

Hammond added that her firm insists on professional behavior when employees use social media, and reminds staff that social communication can sometimes end up in the public arena.

Her bottom line: “If you wouldn’t want it on the front page of The Sacramento Bee, don’t tweet, post or blog it.”

The social media explosion has also affected businesses you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with networking sites.

Kenosha, Wisc.-based toolmaker Snap-on Inc. has more than 15,000 followers on Facebook, where friends post photos and videos and offer myriad comments on Snap-on products.

Snap-on spokeswoman Alicia Smales said the company’s Facebook page “allows us to swiftly communicate with Snap-on enthusiasts of all ages. Snap-on fans are actively sharing their stories and their experiences with Snap-on. It’s really amazing to see how engaged (they) are and how enthusiastically they interact with each other.”

Cvent, a 10-year-old McLean, Va.-based firm that offers online event registration, management and other services, has just launched a social networking effort to enhance event attendance and communication among attendees.

“Social media allow attendees to schedule more private meetings during conferences and build better relationships with other attendees,” said Brian Ludwig, Cvent’s vice president of sales. “Planners can now easily create an online community that is integrated with their event registration process.”

Other businesses are channeling key company information via social media. That includes trade secrets that could be crucial to a company’s success. Hawthorne said this raises more red flags.

“Companies have to decide who has administrative access to this information and why,” she said. “There should be a reason why a person has access or why this person does this.”

But it’s important that access not be limited by gender or race.

“These are things you have to consider if you exclude a person,” Hawthorne said. “Social media may be new to a company, but you still have to think of employment law that already exists.”