Social Networking Policy: Write Now Or Regret Later - InformationWeek

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Social Networking Policy: Write Now Or Regret Later

Fewer than 25% of companies provide rules or guidance for employees posting on social networking sites, new research says--and that's bad news when trouble arises.

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Despite a boom in the use of social networking by businesses, most companies don't provide guidelines to their employees as to what they can and cannot post on websites. Only 24% of companies have policies for how employees should use social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, according to a survey by ICM Research.

That could pose problems for the 76% of enterprises that do not offer any policies, guidance, or other controls over what is considered proper content for social networking sites, and could become a major issue for companies bound by compliance laws, hit with lawsuits, or just looking to protect intellectual property from disclosure.

Almost 39% of more than 1,000 employees surveyed by ICM said their company had no policy on social networking. A further 24% said they were unaware of any such policies. About 24% of those surveyed said there was some guidance on posting content to social media sites. Roughly 24% said their companies set restrictions on the times they are allowed to access such sites.

This is a growing issue for companies, as nearly a third of respondents use sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn on a daily basis. More than 5% do so several times an hour.

Despite the lack of policy in this area, social media usage in the workplace has grown rapidly in recent years. Some 51% of respondents say they use a social networking site at work, which clearly indicates that social networking is becoming a critical business tool.

Raj Mehta, CEO and president of Infosys International, an IT services consultancy, has seen both the positive and negative impacts of social networking first hand. "Many of our enterprise level clients are struggling to define the implications of social networking and are coming to us to help determine policy," he said in an interview. "In a best-case scenario, social networking can help businesses to better connect to customers, build better products, and improve customer service. However, if used incorrectly, social networking can have the effect of alienating customers or damaging a brand's value."

That's the challenge for companies that want the benefits of social networking without the risks of improper content. There is no denying the impact that social networking can have on a company, its brands, and its workforce, but the key is to make sure that the impact is positive. "Companies can not ignore the potential of social networking, yet they can not afford to turn a blind eye towards its usage," Mehta said.

The answer may border on the obvious--just like any other technology that deals with intellectual property, rules and guidance must be created that control content, posting, and access. "Companies must define relevant policies and keep them up to date with the ongoing changes in social networking," according to Mehta. Nevertheless, some companies have only made half-hearted attempts at controlling social networking.

"We're seeing a growing number of cases where firms have vague or out-of-date social media policies that are unenforceable if inappropriate activity takes place," said Jonathan Wyatt, managing director at Protiviti, a business consultancy and internal audit firm, which commissioned the survey. "It's extremely worrying that only a quarter of workers have been provided with any real guidance regarding the use of social media sites," he said in a statement.

The survey found employees aged 18-24 years are the most regular users of social networking sites, with one in five claiming to use them several times an hour. "This generational divide in the workplace poses a threat to firms with senior managers often unaware of whether their company's HR and IT policies are adequate," said Wyatt.

One thing is certain: Companies need to manage new forms of communications, such as social networking, to ensure that brands are not damaged and that benefits can be reaped from the latest technologies. Mehta recommends companies establish clear policies for social networking. These might include guidelines on sharing photographs from corporate events, answering customer inquiries, and blogging. Mehta also suggested that companies review all their HR and IT policies, as many have become out-dated in the era of social networking.

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