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Weighing the Risks of Social Networking

September 7, 2010

The prospect of establishing a corporate social networking site inevitably raises concerns about privacy and security issues. But doing research in advance and putting ground rules in place before launching the site can ease fears and minimize risks.

It’s crucial to set usage policies and convey them to employees. “The reality is, if someone stands next to the water cooler and says something wildly inappropriate, they’ll be in trouble,” so the same should hold true with social networking sites, says Charles Coy, director of product marketing for Cornerstone OnDemand, a talent management software company in Santa Monica, California. Unlike a fleeting verbal dispute that might arise in an office, he says, “you can’t erase digital history” on social networks.

Whatever is posted should be closely monitored because a company is liable for content that an employee might consider to be harassment or defamation, says Heather Sager, a labor and employment attorney with the firm Drinker Biddle. However, a successful defense argument can be made, she adds, if the company removes the post as soon as it is made aware of offensive comments.

Andrew Wootton, a senior consultant with HR consultancy Towers Watson & Co., believes employers must prohibit anonymous posts. “Once you put someone’s name on it,” he says, “you don’t have the same anarchy as you have on the Internet.” Wootton also cautions companies to make sure employees retain control over their profiles in the company directory and that nothing is posted without their authorization. In some cases, employees don’t even want their photos posted with their company profiles.

Some companies fear that valuable proprietary information might be leaked. “People say things that perhaps they don’t mean to, or they don’t know who has clearance to hear what they’re saying,” says Darren Cahr, an intellectual property attorney for Drinker Biddle. “Trade secrets have been leaked ever since there have been trade secrets, but an inadvertent leak of trade secrets is more likely” through internal social networks.

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