Whether you are into social networking or not, there is no denying its popularity. In October 2012, Facebook hit one billion active users. Twitter alone has more than 200 million active users, sending a billion tweets a week. Clearly, more and more companies are turning to social networking sites to advertise their products and services, deliver messages and improve customer service.

But while social networking sites offer companies the means to communicate directly with millions of people, they also offer individuals the same power. Combine that with the higher degree of anonymity available to people operating on the Internet, and individuals have an enormous ability to affect the fortunes and reputations of companies.


What Toppings Would You Like With That?

The single greatest threat of social networking sites for businesses is the ability to quickly disseminate destructive information about the company to a huge number of people. One famous example is an infamous video from two now former employees of Domino’s Pizza. The employees filmed themselves performing unsanitary acts to food products, which they then sold to actual customers. The video went “viral” overnight and was viewed hundreds of millions of times. Domino’s corporate executives later conservatively estimated that the video cost them 1-2% of their yearly sales – about $37 million dollars. All from two reckless employees who gained nothing other than brief notoriety.

Social media risks are not limited to working time; they also present risks while an employee is “off the clock.” Employees can just as easily post disparaging comments about their company from the comfort of their living room as they can from their cubicle. Such vulnerabilities make an outright ban on employee use of social networking sites impractical.

Supervisors and employers must focus their efforts not on controlling access to these sites but on controlling the messages put out on them by their employees – and non-employees. However, when seeking to control these messages, employers can run into significant legal issues. The first step in insulating your company from Facebook and Twitter is developing a company social networking policy. Such a policy does two things. First, it tells your employees that you know all about social networks and that you take what happens on those sites seriously. Second, it gives your employees guidance on what is expected of them. 


So What’s In A Good Policy?

1. Set Guidelines About Postings.Start by reminding your employees that you are paying attention to what gets posted.  That alone will deter many employees from making irresponsible comments. Give guidelines to what sorts of comments are prohibited. However, the social media policy should be specific to your industry and business and should include examples of prohibited comments, such as harassing or disparaging comments based on race, sex, disabilities, or other protected status.

2. Employee Complaints. Watch out for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); it has been increasingly targeting companies that fire workers for their comments on personal social media sites, arguing that some comments represent protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Be aware that when employees speak out about working conditions, wages, or other conditions of employment, regardless of whether it is online or disparaging to managers or coworkers, the NLRB has found this to be protected activity. Once again, including examples of prohibited comments is the best way to conform to the NLRB’s requirements.

3. The Internet Is Forever. Remind your employees that what they post on the Internet lasts more or less forever. Not only will it always be viewable; everyone will always know that they posted it.

4. Designating a Social Networking Team. Large companies should also consider putting together a “social media team.” A designated team can monitor changes in technology, stay on top of the latest sites and advise management of new developments. A good team should include representatives of the IT department, human resources, the legal department, and a few younger tech savvy employees – and meet on a regular basis.

Another key role for the social media team should be to monitor the company’s reputation on the web. Setting up a “Google alert,” for example, will help alert the company early on when something is being said about it. Team members should also conduct regular checks of YouTube, Instagram and other popular social media sites for any mention of the company. Who knows, you might even find something positive being said that you may want to publish to a wider audience.

5. Having Your Own Online Presence. A well-designed social networking site can serve as an excellent recruiting or marketing tool. If the company needs to get a message out – say announcing a temporary facility closure due to inclement weather – posting the message on a company Facebook page or Twitter feed will reach a lot of employees almost instantly. 

Before launching a site, consider what your peers are doing and how to develop a site that is helpful but not intrusive. Social networking sites are generally free, but someone who is tech-savvy should be specifically designated to oversee the site on a regular basis. A badly managed presence may be worse than none at all.


The Web 2.0

The only thing Web 2.0 really means is that there is going to be a Web 3.0 – and no one really knows what that will be, either. As the ability to transmit information becomes faster and more personal, companies must maintain flexibility to respond to both the challenges and opportunities of information technology. A company prepared only for today is outdated tomorrow.



About the author

Richard D. Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz Schraeder Linker Farris Mayes, L.L.P., a national labor and employment firm based in Houston. He has been at the forefront of labor and employment law for over thirty years, including stints with the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board. Alaniz is a prolific writer on labor and employment law and conducts frequent seminars to client companies and trade associations across the country. Questions about this article can be addressed to him at (281) 833-2200. ralaniz@alaniz-schraeder.com.