Employers have right to set social media policies

But should clearly state their rights and obligations such as legitimate monitoring of employees' social media use to avoid potential disputes as well as keep within accepted guidelines, say security experts.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Social media policies in the workplace need to adequately cover and clearly delineate rights and obligations of acceptable conduct not just of staff, but also of employers, such as the legitimacy of monitoring employees' work-related comments on social networks and taking disciplinary action. Doing so can help minimize potential disputes between the two sides, advise industry experts.

Steve Durbin, global vice president at U.K.'s Information Security Forum (ISF), said guidelines ought to be made about how employers monitor and take action on staff conduct and social media comments. He noted that several employers were "struggling" to come to terms with how to handle social media usage in the workplace.

Such guidelines should be part of a company's overall social media policy, which Durbin said is a must to ensure both employees and employers are aware of what is appropriate behavior on social networks, as well as the security features provided with social communications. There also needs to be clear understanding that the content on the networks may be monitored and can be legally and contractually-binding, he added.

"A social media policy sets out the ground rules of what is and what is not acceptable for both employee and employer," he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

Furthermore, a social media policy that includes employer-related guidelines can also help mitigate potential misunderstandings regarding the emotive issue of "where does employer snooping start and business management end", he explained.

If an organization has gone through the process of defining the manner in which its business strategy relates to social media usage and producing clearly-defined guidelines that are well-publicized to employees, a contract then is established, Durbin said. "The issue of snooping then disappears," he said.

Also, if the employer abides by guidelines that have been agreed and accepted by the employee, then it is "well within its rights to impose reprisals for behavior [that fall] outside these guidelines", he noted.

Employers, employees both accountable
Steve Hodgkinson, Asia-Pacific IT research director at Ovum, said social media guidelines should also apply to what the employer does with the information collected and how that data is acted upon. These guidelines should ensure employers, not just employees, are clear about each side's rights and obligations, the Melbourne-based analyst said via e-mail.

Hodgkinson explained that some of the information collected may comprise sensitive, private information and need to be treated under the provisions of a country's privacy legislation. If an employee is found to be engaged in behavior that is in breach of his terms of employment, then how the company responds needs to be carefully considered, he said.

Due to the nature of social media, employees can cause even more "negative noise" in social networking channels. Social media breaches should not be dealt with differently from other breaches under the terms of employment, he said, reiterating that employers must be mindful of their response to any inappropriate social media behavior or risk having the issue blown out of proportion among social networks.

"Any organization that is concerned about protecting its brand needs to be sensitive to how the brand and company are being discussed in social media," Hodgkinson said. "And companies should be transparent about the fact that they are actively monitoring conversations about them in social media."

Gene Connors, partner at law firm Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, U.S., also emphasized that both employers and employees must share the responsibility and be accountable for social media use and conduct.

He told ZDNet Asia that employer-related guidelines that are statutory and court-recognized are already in place in the United States, which employers operating in the country must follow or risk facing legal consequences. For instance, the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) forbids employer from wiretapping and monitoring their staff, with a few exceptions--for example, if the company views such monitoring as a business need, or if actual or implied employee consent to such monitoring already exists.

Legitimate need to know
Elaborating, Connors noted that while social media guidelines differ according to individual companies, they should all address certain practical requirements such as whether there was a legitimate need for employers to know their staff's social media use, if the monitoring was conducted reasonably and in the least intrusive manner, and whether there was employee consent to such monitoring.

Durbin added that some business requirements typically meant such monitoring would be necessary for employers to implement, such as corporate governance, business confidentiality, critical information protection and legal liability conformance. However, he stressed that employee rights should also be respected including the right to privacy and freedom of speech.

Both employers and employees need to understand that social media is at the forefront of a change in work style and practice, he said. Effective social media use in the enterprise requires well-established, commonly-agreed guidelines that are both fair and reflective of the needs of the employer and employee, he noted.

Adrian Wakeling, managing editor of U.K.'s Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) National, which seeks to improve employment relations, said a social media policy is needed to clearly establish what is acceptable behavior and what disciplinary measures will be used, and emphasized that employers should "treat electronic behavior in the same way as you treat non-electronic behavior".

The organization also advised against heavy-handed monitoring and also recommended that employers be cautious when taking action against inappropriate comments found on social media, among its other guidelines.

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