Business Perspectives

Internet use policy can help protect employers

In today's world of social media, an employee easily can update her Facebook status while texting a friend and simultaneously enter sensitive, confidential work information into Excel.

Recent advances in technology and the rapid growth of social media on the Internet, while sometimes advantageous, have significantly increased an employer's potential liability and exposure to lawsuits. In order to recognize these risks and reduce them, it is important for employers to have policies and procedures related to employees and their use of social media while at work.

Why regulate social media?

There are many reasons that compel an employer to closely regulate and monitor employee Internet use. Many employers are unaware they can be liable for an employee's conduct online. For example, a management employee could sexually harass a subordinate or an employee could reveal confidential information about the client in violation of a confidentiality agreement. Employers should take measures to regulate social media in order prevent their own liability.

Avoiding lawsuits is not the only reason to regulate social media. Doing so can increase employee productivity and limit the publicly available company information that is posted online. By managing social media, an employer can protect its image, insulate itself from liability and keep employees focused. In order to manage these risks, employers should develop, implement and enforce social media policies that follow simple guidelines.

Policy-making guidelines

* Define the scope of the policy. Employers must keep in mind their specific needs and wants before adopting an Internet use policy. Do this by evaluating the needs and expectation of the workplace and of employees. If an employee's tasks require accessing information online, banning access altogether is not feasible.

* Evaluate your ability to regulate, monitor and enforce a social media policy. An employer should evaluate whether it will be able to regularly monitor social media before adopting a policy that claims the employer will. Important information to know includes who owns the computers and technology; what written or informal policies already exist; and whether employees have remote access to the system.

* Be concise. Clearly indicate what is prohibited and which types of communications are covered by the policy, so employees know what is expected of them. Consider whether to address behavior while on specific sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, or whether to apply the policy to instant messaging or texting.

* Keep the individualized needs and limitations of the particular workplace in mind when developing a policy. However, all employers should consider a variation of the following key policies:

1. "All employees are expected to conduct themselves online in the same manner in which they would behave in person."

2. "Employees are expected to respect the intellectual property rights of the employer and of others while engaging in online conduct."

3. "E-mail and Internet usage on employer's system will be monitored. Employees have no expectation of privacy in employer-owned resources, stored files, or deleted files."

4. "In all online communications, employees should make it clear they are expressing only their own opinions and not those of their employer."

Implementation and enforcement

Adopting an Internet use policy is not a panacea for the problems that accompany employees' online conduct. If the policy is not properly implemented and enforced, it is pointless. Disseminate policies to all employees and require them to sign an acknowledgment stating they reviewed and understand the policy.

Make sure supervisory staff is familiar with the policy and require them to enforce the policies uniformly. Finally, monitor the policy to determine whether it is effective and up-to-date. Do not be afraid to adjust the policy as needed if it is inadequate or outdated.

By implementing an Internet use policy, employers gain distinct advantages. They insulate themselves from liability in certain situations and improve worker productivity. The potential problems that an employer avoids by developing, implementing, and enforcing a social media policy outweigh the initial effort required to do so.