Whether you’ve just dipped a toe into the pool of social media or you’ve jumped in with a splash, at some point you need to surf an ethical wave in this vast new ocean. That is, how do you and your employees use these wonderful, wide-reaching tools in a professional, beneficial way and avoid getting smacked by damaging, or worse, illegal, usage.
This is becoming a big deal, because statistics show that more than 80 percent of Internet users participate in a social networking site, according to Cindy Unger, WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz adviser (WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz. is a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming).
The beauty (and sometimes the curse) of these networks is that they 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. For agriculture, that means farmers can instantly “tell their story” to people they’ll probably never meet in person and “reconnect” with an audience increasingly unfamiliar with all things farming and ranching.
That’s an attractive concept in this new "online, social world," where business (and farm) reputations may be defined by customer opinions and ratings. Companies and organizations 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, Unger notes.
However, 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, she cautions.
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?
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, Unger adds. “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.”