Next-generation Internet tools such as Twitter and Facebook are revolutionizing the way companies do business, allowing them to connect instantly with customers, sell goods and services, and recruit employees.
But some companies are finding that the brave, new world of Web 2.0 has serious pitfalls. Employees using Twitter, Facebook and other interactive web functions have divulged confidential information, company secrets and personal information about themselves repeatedly. Such actions are bad for business. Not only can they embarrass an employer, experts say, such mistakes also can cost companies thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Twitter Trouble, Facebook Faux Pas
In June 2009, Battle Creek, Mich., Mayor Mark Behnke Twittered city employees’ confidential information accidentally, including their Social Security numbers. City officials then worked with the police, Twitter and Twitdoc to have all traces of the information removed from the site—four days after it had been posted. In another incident, the wife of Britain’s United Nations Ambassador John Sawers—likely future head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6—caused embarrassment and risked a security breach when she reportedly posted to Facebook confidential information on where her family lives, works and vacations. Add to that the possibility of sending direct (private) messages to all users accidentally or posting a link with a virus or malware, and the chasm of what can go wrong deepens.
This is why HR should spearhead the development of company policies on the usage of social networking sites in this Web 2.0 age, experts say. Companies can delete or sometimes recall wrong information employees send out on the web; however, mistakes can haunt them forever. That’s because recipients can store the information on their computers or access archived web pages that retain bad data.
“With any type of communication tool, there need to be appropriate restrictions and policies in place so employees are on notice to exactly what the guidance is,” said Tamara Devitt, a labor and employment attorney at Fisher and Phillips LLP in Irvine, Calif.
Instant Communication or Instant Trouble
The Internet used to be a largely static medium, filled with web pages where users could do little more than look and read. But the web has embarked on a period of greater interactivity—the Web 2.0 age.
Users can blog, keep online journals and post their thoughts instantly on issues of the day, or join social networking web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, where they can connect with family, friends, classmates and people who share professional interests. Don’t forget Twitter, the micro-blogging site where users can post their activities and links to web sites that interest them and their followers.
Even more familiar Internet tools such as e-mail continue to pose risk. Eight of 10 marketing and advertising executives admitted they made a mistake when sending e-mail, according to a recent survey released by the Creative Group, a specialized staffing service in Menlo Park, Calif. The mistakes included sending a job offer to the wrong person and revealing a worker’s salary information to the entire company.
Now, more than ever, companies have to be especially careful about how their employees use social networking sites, said Devjani Mishra, a labor and employment attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in New York City. Employers risk being sued if employees use these mechanisms to make discriminatory or harassing remarks, she said. Other experts warn that publicly traded companies could see their stock value plummet or could face fines or lawsuits if their employees leak sensitive information.
Tips for HR
Experts offered these tips to human resource officials on how to help their companies navigate Web 2.0 and use its tools to their advantage:
Hold a brainstorming meeting with HR, management, information technology staff and other employees, especially ones who are savvy about social networking sites, said Mark Amtower, a consultant in Highland, Md., who advises government contractors on Web 2.0 use. Use these sessions to educate employees about how the technology works and how the company can benefit from it before setting policy, Amtower said.
When you are ready to set policy on employee Web 2.0 use, bring together a team that includes legal counsel, your information technology director, your records manager and your public relations staff, said Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and author of The e-Policy Handbook: Second Edition. Such a team will create the most comprehensive policy.
Once you decide whether you will let employees use Web 2.0 and a policy is set, conduct formal training sessions so employees understand fully what they can and cannot do with Twitter, Facebook and other Web 2.0 tools, Flynn said.
Your Web 2.0 policy must balance employee privacy and the employee’s obligations of undivided loyalty to the company, said Lynne Eisaguirre, a workplace expert, former employment attorney and author who lives in Denver. When employees are using their personal computers and portable devices, their privacy must be respected unless they are posting something defamatory about the company, she said. Employees should be advised to avoid mentioning the company, bosses or co-workers in online postings unless they have permission.
Employees should be told that their personal web use at home could come back and bite them as well, Eisaguirre said. “Employees should be advised that posting embarrassing or unprofessional material can be damaging to their career and that bosses or future employees may be examining these postings,” she said.
Don’t try to ban the use of Web 2.0 at work—this might alienate talented employees, Flynn advised. Younger workers tend to snub companies that block Web 2.0. “If you try to ban access 100 percent … you are going to have a lot of resentment that would be generated,” she said.
Maryland-based Greg Wright is a freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.