Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Employer Social Networking Policies: Pre-Drafting Considerations & Dangers of Sample Policies

Employers often want to know more about permissible or effective social networking policies for their employees. Of course, there's no such thing as a “one size fits all” social media policy for employers, but I think readers might find it helpful if we took some time to address important considerations involved in drafting, updating, or maintaining a policy addressing employees’ online activities. With that goal in mind, I’m going to begin a series of entries specifically tackling some of those issues.

Pre-Drafting Considerations
These issues arise even before the policy drafting begins -- so that's where we'll start.  The planning stage of an employer’s social networking policy defines the later effectiveness of the policy. It may be wise for information technology personnel, human resources professionals, other internal company decisionmakers, and legal counsel to sit down together to determine the employer’s business interests, needs, goals, and expectations under the yet-to-be-drafted policy.

Sample Policies or Model Guidelines:  Don't Forget to Assess the Company's Unique Needs
It’s important to keep in mind that although model policies or sample guidelines may offer some helpful “nuggets,” those policies derive from unique business considerations – which may or may not align with the business interests of other companies. For example, many employers look to the IBM Social Computing Guidelines – one of the first publicly available social media policies. While I do think IBM’s policies are lovely, all the attention given to IBM’s guidelines (and model policies in general) easily distracts employers and discourages them from carefully analyzing their own unique objectives.

As a technology company, IBM has been motivated to actively encourage employee use of social networking. Other employers probably do not have the same motivations. More than 10 years ago, when most employers were trying to limit employees’ online activity, IBM was encouraging its employees to use, learn, and participate in online activity; the company continues to advocate its employees’ participation in Web 2.0. The overarching business interests of a technology company like IBM (i.e., promoting use of online media for marketing and business reasons) may conflict with the overarching business interests of other employers (i.e., perhaps a greater need to protect proprietary business information).

In sum, if human resources professionals at Acme, Inc. look to a sample policy for drafting guidance, they should always bear in mind that the fundamental principles underlying IBM’s (or anyone else’s) guidelines may not best serve the interests of Acme. At the risk of sounding very “lawyer,” I now point out the obvious: social networking policies, as with most employment policies, require individualized attention and should be specifically tailored to the needs of each employer.

Sample Policies or Model Guidelines:  Quality Control
The other problem with examples found online is quality control. Googling “social networking policies” may give an internet user a list of results, but it generally doesn’t disclose things like: who drafted the samples, the employer’s jurisdiction and applicable law, or the business interests driving the policy. In other words, the policy could have been drafted by an idiot, it might address too much or too little, and Company A may be focused on helping its sales team effectively use Facebook as a marketing tool while Company B just wants to keep its associates from divulging confidential financial information on MySpace.

Without properly assessing the business interests and concerns the employer wants or expects its social media policy to address, the resulting policy will be of little value to the employer. Before drafting any guidelines, employers should focus on the fundamental framework for and guiding principles behind their anticipated policies.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You:  Practice Pointers
Stay tuned for some practice pointers on this subject, which I hope to post tomorrow.


  1. Your blog provides a solid foundation of considerations from which to begin to build a policy. Thanks

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