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The use of social media at the office is a tricky one. Some employers draw clear lines around postings to corporate accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. But what about the Likes, photos and miscellaneous commentary employees regularly post on their personal accounts? It's a tricky issue.

For starters, the law on whether employers have the right to monitor activity on personal social media accounts is unclear. Can employers discipline an employee for a late-night Facebook rant against a boss? Or is the employee protected by free speech? Some 12 states have enacted laws that expressly bar employers from gaining access to the social media accounts of either workers or prospective employees. Courts, too, are grappling with the issue.

For now, there are six basic steps that companies can safely take to regulate their employees' social media use — and avoid a full-blown PR crisis:

1. Encourage employees to maintain separate accounts for personal and professional use. Mixing accounts is risky. Warns Tom Petrocelli, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group: “It’s even okay if you maintain an account for business messaging that is under your control to further your personal brand and include some corporate messages with it, especially as they relate to you. Just keep business in one place and personal in another and don’t blend them together.”

2. Remind employees that disclosing insider information is a no-no — under any circumstance. Companies should make clear that divulging company secrets is against company policy and they should routinely refer to the diktat as a reminder. 

3. Create an open — and safe — environment for employees to admit online mishaps. Encouraging employees to confess when they've posted an inappropriate comment on social media can help minimize any fallout. Acknowledging a mistake is better for both the employee and employer because it creates a culture of honesty and trust, writes Heather Huhman, founder and president of consulting firm Come Recommended, on BBC.

4. Don’t ask employees to promote the company on their personal accounts. Some companies are asking employees to change their cover photos on their personal Facebook profiles to promote the company. Yet, employers don’t have to look much farther than the Facebook terms of service to find out that using personal timelines for commercial gain is prohibited. If employees want to promote the company by posting pictures of them at the annual summer picnic, more power to them, notes lawyer Ruth Carter of Carter Law Firm. The key takeaway: let them make the choice.

5. Clearly set out when personal social media accounts are accessible by employers. There's only one scenario in which employers have a fairly clear right to access employees' social media accounts: workplace investigations. Although an employee claiming discrimination or sexual harassment is likely to volunteer supporting evidence, employers in most states are allowed to request account credentials in cases of alleged wrongdoing, says employment lawyer Eric Meyer.

6. Establish guidelines for those who own the company's social media accounts from the beginning of employment. "The line between a personal and professional social media account can be blurry," writes employment lawyer Renee Jackson on Forbes, "so if this ownership issue is not hashed out at the beginning of employment, the employer and the employee may both believe the account is theirs." Management should create the accounts under the company’s name, manage the logins, and oversee the content posted, recommends Jackson. Specify account ownership and acceptable content in formal job descriptions or offer letters.

 

Photo: Creative Commons