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Protecting Your Small Business

When Employees Vent Online

Social media is the “it” thing for now and the foreseeable future, but when it comes down to it, it also is the Wild West in terms of how businesses - both large and small - can tame its use among employees.

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There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to employees’ Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ use, but experts say small businesses would be remiss if they didn’t tell employees up front what their policies are on the use of such platforms, and what the ramifications may be if employees use their social networks to complain about their company, boss, or - worse - divulge insider company information. In fact, social expectations could even be integrated into employee training on issues such as sexual harassment.

“I think it would be something that would be right up there with sexual harassment training - on a list of things you have to go through with your employees,” said social media strategist and author Kathryn Rose, founder of Kathryn Rose Consulting. “I would just expect that my employees are going to complain about me [on social networks] ... what can you possibly do? The thing you really want to do is protect your company’s reputation.

“It becomes more about managing the reputation than controlling people’s behavior,” she added. “You can’t stick your head in the sand then somebody writes a blog about how someone hates your company - what are you going to do?”

Companies are grappling with how to handle disgruntled employees’ venomous Tweets or Facebook posts; some companies are making headlines for demanding potential employees’ Facebook user names and passwords.

Many small businesses restrict access to social media sites on work computers. Certain businesses also have employees sign confidentiality agreements that could include guidelines for social media interaction. Small business owners can sign up for Google alerts so they know when their company is being talked about on the Web, works the same as Google alerts but scours social media sites for mention of your company. The Securities and Exchange Commission advises financial companies, in particular, using social media to “adopt, and periodically review the effectiveness of, policies and procedures regarding social media in the face of rapidly changing technology,” since companies of that nature also have to abide by federal financial laws.

“Social media now is problematic within the business realm,” said Craig Delsack, a New York City-based business lawyer specializing in media and technology companies. “Obviously things are up there forever - even if it’s deleted, it’s in cache.” In finance firms, in particular, he added, “the last thing you want someone to do is have someone tweet, in 140 characters, good, bad or indifferent, about a company.”

Regardless of what type of business you own, it’s smart to err on the side of caution and spell out your expectations for social media use by employees, whether it be on computers at work or at home, or on mobile devices.

“If you have an employee that’s constantly using foul language on their Facebook page or Twitter and it says they’re an employee of General Electric or whatever - everybody becomes an ambassador of a company 24-7,” Delsack said. But “you can’t implement controls over what common sense should dictate.

“Most people get it.”

You can include language in the employees’ contract that outlines exactly the kind of online behavior that could lead to their dismissal. Another option is to have employees sign a non-disparaging agreement, in which the employee agrees not to speak or report negatively of the employer.

But as for what more you can do as a business owner ...

“That’s the best you can do,” Delsack added. “Hopefully the employee knows the ramifications are, one, losing their livelihood, and two, being sued for damages.”

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