As the use of social media becomes pervasive and powerful for employees on duty and off, businesses are seeing the need to implement policies on its use.
"The reason for a policy is to what extent it can impact the company, to protect business," explains Karlee Bolanos, a partner specializing in employment and labor law at Harris Beach PLLC. "The powers of social media can be damaging, and people need to be sensitive to that."
She points to high-profile incidents in the news recently that underscore the serious impact of certain types of social media use. For instance, a fiasco occurred when two young, uniformed Domino's Pizza employees videotaped themselves tampering with the pizza sauce by adding disgusting ingredients, Bolanos says.
They posted the video to YouTube, and within two hours it became one of the most popular online. It was unpopular with Domino's stockholders, however, and the company stock declined sharply after the video was posted. Domino's decided to change the formula of its sauce to recover from the viral video crisis.
"We advise having a (social media) policy," Bolanos says. "Along with that should be training. That is an important piece. If you put a policy in place without the educational piece, there is resistance. But if you teach employees why it is there, they are more likely to understand."
She realizes there could be concern among employees when they sense their privacy is being invaded or their freedom is being restricted. Training helps dispel those concerns and shows how the policies regarding social media use are designed to protect the company and not intimidate employees.
"There is a delicate balance. You have to have policies that let people have their rights," Bolanos explains. "They can use Facebook to complain about their low pay or working conditions, but they can't have a family member talking about a pending merger before it goes public."
The National Labor Relations Board protects employees' right to complain about their jobs and allows them to name where they work. But company logos that are trademarked can be restricted for public use and prohibited from use on Facebook and email by an employee.
Everyone understands using the company name in a negative way is wrong, but even employees using it in a positive way may not be in line with the company's brand position, Bolanos says.
"Before, a company could control its advertising," she says. "But now much of it is out of a company's control. It's difficult, if not impossible, to say, 'Do not use our name online.'"
It is up to each company to determine its own social media policy, but there are certain things Bolanos does advise many clients to do. She says managers should not be friends with subordinates on sites such as Facebook. They could be held liable for things they learn about, such as disabilities, sexual relationships or religious affiliations. Individual companies need to consider what works best for them.
All 4,600 employees who work for Monroe County government are subject to a social media policy that was implemented a year ago. County workers are restricted from using the county logo, posting any photo of themselves or any recognizable colleagues engaging in any inappropriate behavior or discussing such behavior, and they are to reserve the use of social media for their own time unless it is part of their job duties.
"It informs employees social media is not private. It's considered public, and we have the right to monitor it," says Brayton Connard, director of human resources for Monroe County. "Each of the unions spent particular attention looking at that section. But they knew they had a grievance procedure to fall back on so there would be due process."
The policy's main goal, Connard says, is to serve as a guide for employees. Most items call for judgment based on common sense, but in some cases employees may not realize they could be committing an infraction by conveying an improper endorsement of a product or an opinion. This can be especially important because of their employment with a government agency, Connard says.
"Most of our employees use common sense," he says. "They've been put on notice they face certain consequences for their behavior with social media. It might be a simple warning or immediate firing, depending on the circumstances."
So far there have been no violations of the policy, Connard says, and no real opposition from employees. He stresses that the county devised its policy not as a way to investigate the social media habits of its staffers but to give the county a right to look further into what is already in plain sight.
"Your house is your private property," Connard says. "But your front yard is not private. It's like your public profile and how you share with friends on Facebook. It's a public device and the nature of the Internet. People have to be aware of what they put in full view."
At the YMCA of Greater Rochester, employees have had a social media policy for four years. The agency already has made at least four updates to it.
"We decided to be proactive when we first started talking about doing social media ourselves," says Fernan Cepero, vice president of human resources for the YMCA. "So we began by issuing guidelines for blogging."
There was some concern and confusion when the policy initially was explained to the 3,000 employees, he admits.
There is no training related to the policy, but there is a resource on staff. A full-time director of social media is available to answer questions and provide guidance.
The policy asks employees not to use the YMCA logo, since it is trademarked, and there is language about being mindful of behavior while representing the Y, an organization that stands for building character.
"Initially it was a learning experience for employees, so we had a handful of cases of 'Did you know what you have on your page is inappropriate?'"Cepero explains. "The employees were surprised and appreciative. There was no animosity."
In many cases enforcement has been a matter of raising awareness. If an employee is wearing his or her uniform while standing in a bar, the photo should be posted in a place not visible to the public, according to the policy.
"We had to have a gentle conversation," Cepero says. "The employee in some cases set their privacy setting accordingly."
The biggest pushback came from employees who are parents. They did not like the guideline that does not recommend friending people under 18.
"Many parents friend their children to monitor their activities. It makes sense," Cepero says. "The guideline came from our insurance carrier as a safety precaution. In some instances, people can get accused of improper relationships."
In general, though, the policy has not been a matter of contention, he says. It is reviewed every two years, and Cepero expects the updates will keep coming.
"It's ever-evolving because we want to remain current," he says. "So many social media platforms have popped up. We started with blogging four years ago, and our last policy update happened this January with Pinterest."
Unity Health System's top leaders were the first to learn of its social media policy when it was rolled out in 2010. The policy was developed as a result of Unity noticing an increased use of social media and wanting to ensure that activity reflected its values.
"We have four or five generations in the workforce," explains Maryalice Keller, senior vice president of brand and talent management at Unity Health. "Many have a thorough understanding of social media, and others have never even used Facebook. But some of our staff (have) been sharing concerns about seeing people use social media on break time, even work time."
As in many professions today, some Unity Health workers do need to use social media on the job.
"We have recruiters who use social media tools such as LinkedIn," Keller says. "But in general, if it is not needed for your work, our policy asks that our employees do not use social media while they are on the job."
Other aspects of the Unity Health policy include mandates that workers not interact with any news media, not mention a patient or customer in any way and not give medical advice.
After Unity's leadership saw the policy, it was released companywide, Keller says, and at first employees had some questions.
"Early on there was some dialogue: 'Can I identify my job on Linked In? Can I friend a colleague?'" Keller says. "But by and large people (are understanding). We certainly want to protect our employees as well as our company image. We just want everyone to be more aware."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.5/4/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.