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social policy

If you've noticed some of your employees thumbing through their cell phones or quickly closing out a web browser when you walk by, there is a good possibility they're checking one of their various social media accounts. One study shows that one-third of America's workforce uses some form of social media for at least one hour per day during the workday. Another poll reports that the average employee spends nearly an hour and a half per day using office computers for non-business-related activities. The study says a little more than half of that time is dedicated to social media purposes, and the time all together results in a loss of more than $6,000 per employee per year. Those statistics might be sending you into a social-media-in-the-workplace blocking frenzy. If it does, that is your right as a company. But social media use at work does have some benefits. A Towers Watson & Company study revealed that 41 percent of employees surveyed reported increased productivity when allowed to use internal social media tools for work-related purposes. Whether you allow use of social platforms at work, restrict certain social media uses, or ban them altogether is up to your company. But one business strategy that should be standard for all companies is a social media policy, especially from a legal standpoint. Because social media is a relatively new platform, rules and regulations regarding it change quickly. A policy that should be a living document - can then act as an educational tool for employees and employers in addition to an employer safeguard. "You want ground rules that employees and managers understand," said Joseph Harris, a partner at employment law firm White Harris. "Whether it is social media, discrimination, harassment, or any other area of workplace law, businesses get into trouble when managers do not know the policies. If they don't follow the policy and take disciplinary action [against an employee], it can create liability for the company." What ground rules should be mentioned? There are many, but four seem to really stick out in the minds of some experts. One has to do with hosting company Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or other social media websites to market the business. Dianne Moretzsohn, an attorney in the employment law practice at McCausland, Keen, & Buckman who works with clients in developing social media guidelines, says companies might want to implement restrictions regarding who has access to these accounts and what they can say on behalf of the company. Because employees are acting on behalf of the company, employers have more legal leverage as to how employees use these accounts and what kind of action can be taken if they misuse them. Another issue companies must think about is employees' communication on their own social media accounts. The National Labor Relations Act protects communications between co-workers about an employee's terms and conditions of employment. Employers have less latitude in restricting these types of communications, Moretzsohn says, because of an employee's right to engage in "concerted activity." "An employee might gripe about the lousy raise he or she got," she said. "And if there is an exchange back and forth about it between him or her and a co-worker that is protected speech." Therefore, employers cannot take action against employees for this kind of talk without facing potential liability. But Harris reminds clients that they can prohibit employees making statements that could be considered discriminatory, harassing, retaliatory, or maliciously false. "People need to understand that those behaviors prohibited face to face in the workplace also apply when talking about social media," he said. Moretzsohn also recommends thinking about and addressing the use of social media platforms during working hours or on employer-provided equipment. "In that setting, companies have a much greater ability to restrict and monitor use," she said. A fourth element to consider is social media and job applicants. "How might social media impact businesses using it to evaluate applicants or to investigate misconduct?" she said. "This is where companies have to be very careful that they're not treading into an area that is inappropriate or run afoul of the law."

Depending upon the size and kind of business, several other areas of concern might arise, so social media policies do need to be tailored to each individual company. While both Moretzsohn and Harris acknowledge this, Moretzsohn says WalMart's social media policy, which has been approved by the NLRB, is a good example that covers the basics and is neither open for too much interpretation nor is too restrictive. But whatever a company policy might end up spelling out, with today's social-media-prevalent environment, companies cannot afford to go without them.