Workers pose risks online: Survey

Employers need to raise awareness of Internet use policies

If 30 per cent of adults are happy to post information online about their employers, as long as they believe it is true, and two-thirds of companies lack a policy for social media usage, it could be a dangerous combination, according to a survey.

The poll of 2,060 adults in the United States found one-fifth of respondents don’t really consider how their postings at sites such as Facebook, MySpace or YouTube can reflect on their employers. And one-third feel employers should not use their posts against them, regardless of the content.

“As the use of social media grows at an unprecedented rate, especially among 30- to 49-year-olds, the likelihood of businesses being affected by employee social media use also increases,” said Kathy Swendsen, president of Travelers Global Technology, a property casualty insurer in New York.

“An employee could inadvertently post confidential information that could cause irreparable harm to a business. In addition, the speed and ease of publication to a wide audience make it virtually impossible to remove the information once it is posted.”

There’s a disconnect between employees and employers as to what social media entails, said Kevin Lo, managing director of Froese Forensics, specializing in digital forensics in Toronto.

“The employer thinks it’s a toy and staff consider it an important tool in their life,” he said. “(Employers) think it’s just an Internet fad, it will go away and most don’t know how to handle it, to be honest.”

While most of the online posts are pretty benign, there is an attitude that can play a part, said Lo. “Most employees simply think, ‘It’s my little domain, my little world, so it’s none of your business.’”

It’s very seldom anyone does anything malicious, such as trashing a boss or spilling company secrets, said Leona Hobbs, director of communications at the Social Media Group in Toronto. More often it’s a case of someone being thoughtless, upset or frustrated.

“We spend so much time at work, with personal relationships, challenges, successes, so if you’re inclined to be sharing, chances are it’s about work,” she said.

Younger employees are more free with their opinions about work and attracted to the instant gratification of online messages, said Hobbs.

“Certainly they don’t really see a delineation between what they talk about and they certainly aren’t inclined to filter their comments.”

What companies should do

HR can keep an eye out for inappropriate posts by using commercial software, hiring providers that “crawl” around the Internet looking for mentions of keywords or using free tools such as Google Alerts, said Hobbs.

And most employers have enough of a policy framework, with disclosure rules, Internet usage and privacy agreements, to cover the use of social media but they should have a conversation about the digital guidelines and expectations of employees, she said.

“It’s raising awareness around the salient features of the policy,” said Hobbs, and reminding employees that when they go online and say where they work, they represent the company.

Employers do not want to be faced with a worker claiming she had no idea such a policy existed. So they definitely need to have a policy that is absolutely explicit: If you post something bad, even if it’s off-hours, it will be grounds for discipline, all the way up to termination, said Tudor Carsten, a Toronto-based associate with the law firm Davis.

According to the court, the higher-up the position, the greater the responsibility, he said.

“You want to have the ability to discipline an employee and to be able to justify that discipline to a court or labour tribunal later.”

If possible, provide training around the policy, give examples and keep it fun, said Carsten.

“You want to be seen as embracing a new technology but setting reasonable limits.”

It’s best if a company has an official presence on a networking site, said Lo, such as setting up a Facebook page that can be monitored.

If organizations and HR are not upfront about their concerns, they are missing an opportunity and also creating more risk, said Hobbs.

“There’s a huge opportunity to actually empower and encourage employees to think about the company and work — that’s a very progressive stance to take,” she said.

“If you clamp down and say, ‘No,’ the first thing is people go underground, the second is you then stifle those who are engaged, passionate, love what they do, (and) stop them interacting with customers, stakeholders, being the best walking advertisement.”

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