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Companies need clear policies on use of social networking sites at work to avoid risks of employee abuse

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Employers have become vulnerable to employee abuse through social networking sites as they do not have clear policies in place for staff.

According to Manchester based law firm Pannone, which surveyed more than 100 HR directors, 79% of employers do not have a social networking policy in place, while 62% fail to actively manage their online reputation.

Despite these findings, 73% admit the biggest threat to their organisation from social networking sites was employee abuse, in terms of the amount of time spent on such sites or from posting inappropriate comments about the company or colleagues on sites such as Facebook or Twitter. 

Employers were also concerned that encouraging the use of professional networking sites such as LinkedIn allowed staff to have easy access to the employer's client base (18%). 

Other business threats identified included breaches of confidentiality, customers putting bad reviews on websites, disclosure of key business knowledge, electronic security, giving competitors too much information and the time taken to actively manage social networking issues in the workplace.

The survey highlights the risk that companies face in the wake of the social networking phenomenon. It is not surprising that employee abuse of social networking sites is a big concern for employers; hardly a day goes by without stories emerging about employees being disciplined for activities on social networking sites.

The findings come after British Airways suspended 15 flight attendants who wrote Facebook comments about pilots on a ‘name and shame' list who had allegedly volunteered to break a strike.

And last year, Virgin Atlantic sacked 13 cabin crew after they criticised some of the airline's passengers on Facebook.

The survey also revealed, while 35% said that their business used social networking sites as a business development tool, almost two-thirds (62%) are putting their brand at risk by not effectively monitoring their online reputation. 

Of those employers who admitted using social networking sites to vet potential candidates, one in three (33%) said it had influenced their decision whether to offer/reject an application.

Elsewhere, the survey found that of those organisations that actively use social networking sites as business development tools, the most popular site was LinkedIn, (36%), followed by Facebook (29%) and Twitter (27%).

Such is the perceived power of LinkedIn to drum up new business, that 22% of respondents said that they encourage their employees, particularly those in business development and sales roles, to join up and exploit any opportunities to extend their contact network.

But according to Jim Lister  "the big question for employers is - who actually owns the wealth of LinkedIn contacts built up by the employee and should employees be forced to hand over their LinkedIn network when they leave a company?" 

The Pannone survey found 94% of the employers who responded failed to stipulate in their employment contracts that any LinkedIn contacts should be given to the company upon termination of employment.

According to Jim Lister, head of employment at Pannone, while many organisations are actively embracing social networking to capitalise on potential business development opportunities, it is essential that all employers have a social networking policy in place to minimise the risk of employee abuse and reputational damage.

He said: "Despite the huge potential for abuse from employees and external sources such as competitors, it is staggering that around four out of five employers still do not have a social networking policy in place.

"While every organisation has different risks there are a number of fundamental questions that need to be asked when formulating a social networking policy:

  • Do you want to prevent any use of social networking at work or would you prefer to allow employees some access to social networking sites?
  • What controls and limits do you want to impose on the use of such sites?
  • Do you want to prevent any mention of work on social networking sites?
  • For senior personnel, do you wish to limit the public content of social networking sites to exclude anything that might bring the person into disrepute?
  • Consider whether your social networking policy should be cross referenced with your disciplinary policy.  Think about what you consider to be misconduct or even gross misconduct when it comes to the misuse of social networking sites.
  • What steps can you take to ensure that bullying or harassment of colleagues on social networking sites, regardless of the time of posting, is not something for which your company is held to be liable?