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Wyoming Business Tips for April 3-April 9


March 28, 2011 —  A weekly look at Wyoming business questions from the Wyoming Small Business Development Center (WSBDC), part of WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz, a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming.

By Cindy Unger, Wyoming Entrepreneur.Biz adviser

Social Media Meets Corporate Ethics and the Law - Part 1

"As my company increases our use of social media as a marketing strategy, I find myself encouraging my employees to participate on social media sites as a work activity. How do I determine what is ethical in terms of how employee time is spent online and what is expressed?" John, Casper

Every day, more people are actively participating in online social networks.

Statistics show that more than 80 percent of Internet users participate in a social networking site. These networks are about communities, collaboration and user-generated content. Not only is the size of the social networking audience of interest to businesses, facts that information moves instantaneously and across global boundaries are also significant.

In this new "online, social world," business reputations may be defined by customer opinions and ratings. Companies that formerly feared the idea of social networking are embracing these sites to use for lead generation, employee recruiting, branding, customer service and other typical business marketing functions.

The use of social networking in the workplace raises many new and unique legal and practical issues for businesses that want to harness the benefits of increased employee participation in social networks, while avoiding the pitfalls. On one hand, unregulated employee use/misuse of social media can result in an employer having to deal with unprofessional, and possibly illegal, actions by employees.

On the other hand, employers that enact tough restrictions may violate federal or state electronic monitoring laws, or laws relating to legal, off-duty personal conduct. To navigate this minefield, companies are adopting official policies for social media usage, while the courts are simultaneously making rulings about the legality of those policies.

Let's examine some of the issues that may arise:

Decreased work productivity due to time spent online is one obvious problem. Legal pitfalls, such as the possibility of an employee revealing confidential or proprietary company information in a social media post, are also a concern.

Another possible issue is a supervisor or employee posting discriminatory remarks about the company, a co-worker, or a company product on a personal Facebook page. Online harassment is an undesirable possibility. What about an employee who engages in criminal conduct using an employer's computer?

As companies flock to use social media outlets for marketing purposes, they must consider how employees can put them at risk and how to protect themselves. The best solution is probably for businesses to adopt a set of clear, written social media policies that are consistent with their organizational culture.

A blog version of this article and an opportunity to post comments is available at http://www.wyomingentrepreneur.typepad.com/blog/.

The WSBDC is a partnership of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming. To ask a question, call 1-800-348-5194, e-mail wsbdc@uwyo.edu or write 1000 E. University Ave., Dept. 3922, Laramie, WY, 82071-3922.

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