Social media use puts business reputation at risk

Lack of clear policies to guide employee use of social networking sites puts corporate reputations at risk, while inappropriate leaks of information may lead to legal repercussions, says industry observer.

SINGAPORE--One of the biggest risks borne from the use of social media at work is that slipups can potentially damage an organization's reputation, says an industry observer, who recommends that companies create and disseminate clear policies that guide how employees can or cannot behave when using social media in the office.

While the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter can expose corporate networks to malicious code and attacks, one of the biggest problems businesses need to worry about is the "potential reputational damage" due to the disclosure of confidential business or inappropriate information, said Steve Durbin, vice president of sales and marketing at the Information Security Forum (ISF). The ISF is a non-profit organization that provides research and guidance on information security issues.

In an interview Wednesday with ZDNet Asia, Durbin noted that a virus infection brought about by social media is a technical issue that is easier to fix. In contrast, damage to an organization's reputation can happen very quickly and may involve legal liabilities, he pointed out.

According to Durbin, there are currently more risks than benefits associated with social media use in an organization. This is because so far neither companies nor individual employees have reached a level of maturity in terms of establishing the do's and don'ts when using and integrating social media in a work environment, as well as understanding the implications that come with it, he explained.

Social networking sites, observed Durbin, are a relatively new phenomenon. The rise of consumerization and proliferation of devices such as smartphones and tablets--which provide mobile access to social networks--have also made the situation increasingly complex, he said.

People today are multitasking, accessing both personal and work data on corporate systems, such as checking their corporate e-mail and Facebook accounts all at the same time, Durbin added.

In addition, the exponential use of social media has brought about the "avatar effect", or the merging of the fantasy world and real life world, Durbin said. An employee may forget that he is in a work environment and posts content on his social network that is inappropriate in an enterprise context, he added.

Explicit policies the way to go
A similar case occurred in Singapore last month when a staff member of the Health Promotion Board (HPB) accidentally posted a personal tweet containing an expletive on the government agency's official Twitter account. The tweet had already gone viral with retweets by other Twitter users, by the time it was taken off the site.

In response to this, Durbin reiterated the need for explicit social media policies to be in place within an organization. For instance, employees should refrain from being logged in to professional and personal Twitter accounts at the same time.

However, he noted that one must "differentiate malicious intent and accidental misuse" and that "people will always make mistakes". He added that what is more important is how a company "deals with those mistakes in a constructive way, looking at why things happen and putting in place clear measures and policies to prevent that sort of thing happening in the future".

Quizzed on whether social networking reduces or increases staff productivity, Durbin replied it boils down to the individual.

"There are business benefits if someone, through his social network, managed to resolve an issue much faster than he would have otherwise, just as there are others who spend a significant amount of time using their social networks to plan their next holiday", he pointed out.

Kill not an option
While he acknowledged that there are potential business and reputation risks of social media at work, Durbin warned against prohibiting social networks in the workplace.

"The issue isn't social media [itself]," Durbin pointed out, noting that social media is only an "infrastructural layer" that facilitates social interaction. The key is getting some clarity around what is acceptable behavior in a particular organization, he said.

Social elements, he added, have always existed at the workplace and concerns over the impact of social media on employees are the same concerns employers had with workers using their desk phones to converse with their friends.

The difference, however, is that "the medium has changed from the phone to a smartphone, from a chat at the watercooler that stretches to half an hour, to someone sitting at their desk on Facebook," he said. In addition, the medium is Web-based, which means any information put out can suddenly go viral, as seen in HPB's case, he noted.

And while people have changed in the way they behave and operate at a societal level, business practices have not evolved accordingly, Durbin said.

Most organizations have corporate policies and procedures in an employee handbook, such as those governing health and safety, and social networking policies are no different, he added.

"It's about setting the tone for the way you do business and being clear with the people who work with you as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior," said Durbin. That, he noted, is a positive step as opposed to imposing a set of commandments and things that employees cannot do or even totally barring social networks in the office, which is "draconian".


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