Employment Issues / In the News / Social Media

Social Media Versus Company Confidentiality

How can companies ensure business secrecy while encouraging employees to use social media? Kevin Poulter examines the case

The rise in the use of smartphones and social media means that there is an increased risk of employees leaking sensitive or confidential information about a company and placing it firmly in the public domain.

Most employers will already have basic confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts or more complex ones in their service agreements. As with most duties, the more senior the employee the more far reaching their obligation to the company – both during employment and after. But what one person considers to be fit for public consumption might be different to what the company believes to be commercially sensitive.

It is the responsibility of a company to ensure that its employees are alert to the risks of posting confidential information online. Comments that are posted online may be about other staff, clients, confidential information and intellectual property.

LinkedIn

Many businesses are encouraging employees to create a profile on LinkedIn, compiling a list of connections and promoting the company. There is also the opportunity for referrals, recommendations and networking. Yet, by presenting business connections online, companies may be building a brand but at the same time unwittingly encouraging rivals to poach employees, solicit clients or find out information.

Frequent interaction with others is key to maximising the benefits of social media. The more you say, the more people will see and the further the brand extends. But with interaction comes familiarity and with familiarity comes contempt and the temptations to break confidentiality albeit sometimes unwittingly.

All of a Twitter

As with LinkedIn, there has been an explosion in the use of Twitter as a tool for building a network of contacts. One recent high profile example is the move of the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg to ITV, which saw her 60,000 followers seamlessly transfer from the account of BBCLauraK to ITVLauraK. ITV said that Kuenssberg’s twitter following was one of the attractions of employing her.

But there is also the danger of immediate comments to these contacts: inappropriate messages, which I dealt with in my previous column “To tweet or not to tweet”, or comments that break confidentiality or leak sensitive information, which are then picked up by rivals or tweeted about the internet.

Company guidelines

For this reason, it is essential that businesses provide guidance on the use of social media. It is important to make employees aware of the risks of posting information, comments and criticisms online, especially if done in a business context or environment.

Reasonable restrictions to protect the business, its brand and reputation are unlikely to be criticised by the courts, so long as there is a business case and agreement with the employee concerned. This is a new media and requires a new way of thinking – now and in the future.

Here are some steps to consider implementing:

  • Check and reinforce (if necessary) company policies on confidential information, intellectual property, restrictive covenants, bullying and harassment, disciplinary and grievance practice and procedure and any others that might be affected.
  • Make employees aware of the public nature of social media and online communications.
  • Ensure employees understand what the company means by confidential and commercially sensitive information.
  • Remind employees of their duties to the company and also to customers, clients and suppliers.
  • Be consistent in the application of the policies and procedures, taking disciplinary action if necessary and where it is justified.

This article first appeared at www.londonlovesbusiness.com on 2 November 2011

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