What Rights Do Employers, Employees Have in Internet Age?

In an age of way-too-much information and widespread social-networking addiction, businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to protect trade secrets and practices. It’s important to know your rights as an employer and/or as an employee.

If you are neither of the above at the moment, and are instead on the job hunt, you should keep in mind that potential employers have the right to (and will) research your online living activities. In one quick Google search, what might a recruiter learn about you? It’s important to always keep your professional goals in mind when posting personal details on sites that are publicly accessible.

If you pass the test and find yourself employed, you’ll then have to follow company policy regarding Internet activities. Because privacy is often a top concern for employer and employee, companies are adjusting to the new online environment and adopting rules and regulations accordingly to ensure protection.

Anita Campbell, founder and CEO of Smallbiztrends.com, said there’s a major difference between large corporations and small businesses when it comes to social media sites. Large corporations are more likely to block all social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, from being accessed on the company network.

However, she said most small businesses do not block these sites at work and, in some cases, require employees to participate in them for company benefits. Jonas M. Grant, a business attorney and expert, said some employers rightfully worry about the disclosure of confidential company information by employees who are either posting on Web sites under their own names or anonymously. But he said employers do have the right to legally prohibit certain social-networking activities involving the business to avoid a slip of an idea or secret.

According to Campbell, small businesses using social media networks can have advantages and disadvantages. Recommending your employees take full advantage of the power of social media for “free” marketing is a definite plus. But allowing employees to have access to social media all day can deter them from actually working, decreasing productivity.

“But the stickier issue is one of inappropriate communications by employees,” Campbell said.

Grant recommends companies have an employee manual and training program in place specifying acceptable workplace use of the Internet in general. He said employers should expressly tell their employees what they can and cannot talk about, especially in an age with constant Internet communication.

“Employers are also wise to have employees sign employee loyalty and confidentiality agreements at the time of hire,” Grant said.

Experts agree that prevention is key for small businesses, and preparing for “what-ifs” is the best protection. Grant said communicating concerns with employees, outlining company rules and restrictions, while implementing appropriate policies and agreements in conjunction with employment law counsel, is the best method of prevention.