How social media is changing what can be said, when and where

There are many benefits to having your employees active on social media. Exposure, name recognition and free publicity come to mind. But there are potholes along the way.

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Credit: baynados

Dave is the kind of salesman that every company wants. Driven, slightly aggressive, persistent and a contact list a mile wide. He has lots of followers on his Facebook page and Twitter feed and is growing even more quickly on Pinterest, thanks to the photos of your company's products that he posts.  

When Dave closes a deal he takes the team out for beers, treats his family to a nice dinner out and brags about it on his social media accounts. Lots of people reply with congratulations or words of encouragement.  

Amy, in your accounting department has a different social media presence that reflects her more reserved personality. She blogs regularly on Tumblr and posts selfies on Instagram while in pensive poses when problems overwhelm her. She doesn't have as many followers as Dave, but the people who care about her have followers of their own and whatever she posts, they re-post, "like" or tweet about so many others see what Amy is thinking and feeling, too.

Both Dave and Amy represent major risks for your company.

How is this possible? Devoted, dedicated employees with deep reach into a broad base of followers and fans should be an asset to the company, shouldn't they? Yes, they should… if they handle their social media accounts properly. The problem is, most people don't and most companies don't know the difference.  

Imagine now that a couple of your competitors follow Dave on Twitter and that investors, traders and internal personnel (other employees) read Amy's Tumblr blog and look at her photos. Although it sounds benign there are some hidden but serious risks to your company's confidential information.  

Think about this: Dave has beaten one of his competitors in a sales pitch and a big contract is signed. He tweets about it. Investors who have Googled your company's name have come across Dave's profile and followed him on Twitter. He doesn't know who they are - or care - as he's got thousands of followers and can't keep track of each one. The investors, however, know that Dave is a bit of a braggart and read his tweets with interest. When he tweets about beating his toughest competitor in a sales presentation and landing a big contract, the investors buy.  

Dave has given them insider information and doesn't even know it.

[ MORE: Two perspectives on social media for security leaders ]

Amy, on the other hand, watches the books like a hawk. She monitors everyone's expenses and takes it personally when they spike without seeing a revenue increase.  When she gets stressed out she blogs about it on Tumblr and takes photos of herself on Instagram with papers scattered all over her desk and a morose look on her face.

Employees who follow Amy's social media accounts sense that there's something wrong. They see her stress level increasing, note the workload on her desk and worry about their own future. Productivity drops. Rumors start. Bad things happen.

Both Dave and Amy have innocently been doing what millions of people do every day - they have been posting about their personal lives on their social media accounts. But what they haven't realized - and what may affect your company - is that what they write, post or repeat on social media can cause employee problems, productivity issues and even financial damage.  

It's because your company doesn't have a social media policy. In today's world you need to be aware of, or perhaps even control, what is said on your employee's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or even Pinterest accounts. What does a solid social media policy include? At the least it should include:

  • An agreement from your employees not to post insider or revealing information about the company - and what comprises that kind of information.
  • A full set of examples or acceptable and unacceptable comments as guidelines for employees.
  • Someone within the company who serves as a monitor of these accounts. Advanced desktop tools make it easy to find and follow your own employees' accounts and to be alerted if the company name or specific keywords are used in their posts.
  • Reminders sent periodically to employees asking them to tell you what social media tools they use and their screen names so that you can follow them.  
  • A password policy that applies to internal and external logins. Make sure passwords get changed periodically and include a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols with a minimum of 10 characters.
  • A commitment to inform the security department at your company if their personal accounts are compromised (because there's information in their personal accounts that can cause harm to the company).

A few caveats to keep in mind when developing the policy:

  1. This may be difficult to enforce. You may be able to restrict access to Facebook from office computers, as an example, but apps on smartphones will easily defeat a ban like that. This policy will be as much about education, encouragement and ethics as enforcement.
  2. You can't go too far. Restricting employees' right to speech not only can run afoul of the First Amendment but may also be interpreted as interfering with a right of "concerted activities" guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Board. 
  3. A policy that is too restrictive may be a turnoff for prospective employees. If you're dealing with Millennials in particular, restricting what they can post on Facebook or tweet could be viewed as too authoritarian for them.  

Nobody can provide you with all of the answers but it's more important to be aware that you'll need to start asking a lot of questions about the use of social media by your employees. The executives of the company should set the tone to be followed by HR and enforced by the IT and security departments. Employees have rights, but you have responsibilities… to protect your company and your reputation.  

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