Spies Like You?

Should companies monitor employees' use of social-media sites?
Josh HyattJuly 15, 2011

The days when a company could simply un-friend social media — hiding it behind a firewall so employees couldn’t access it — are disappearing faster than yesterday’s “Trending Now” topics on Twitter.

With an estimated 70% of social-media use coming from mobile devices like smartphones, and new online communities popping up all the time, executives now have to decide whether, and how, to monitor employees’ social-media activity. “The time to completely block this activity has passed,” says social-media strategist Mike Dwyer. “The only way to stop it would be to shut down the Internet.”

Tools for monitoring social-media activity come in different varieties. For instance, there is software that sits on the corporate network, continually scanning it for signs of social-media activity and catching any inappropriate or noncompliant activity. There is also proxy monitoring software, which requires employees to access social-media sites via company-controlled technology.

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But before investing in any enforcement tools, which can cost as much as $20 a month per employee, companies need to determine what their policy on social-media use will be. (See “Social Security” at the end of this article.)

“Social media is here to stay, so companies that block it are just removing themselves from the conversation,” says Dan Romine, co-founder and CEO of start-up SocialLogix, producer of SocialSentry 2.0 (software that can monitor any public posts made by employees). But the potential consequences of a single social-media blunder can be disproportionate. Remember when a Burger King employee got the brand in hot water by posting a video of his soapy bath in a restaurant sink? “The results can be damaging to a company,” says Max Drucker, co-founder and CEO of start-up social-media screener Social Intelligence. “If a company hasn’t made its best efforts to protect itself, shareholders could potentially become very upset.” (On a related note, see “Alive and Kicking.”)

A viable first step for employers is to warn workers that their social-media activity will be monitored during work hours. “It took the world a long time to understand that employees don’t own their company e-mail,” says Damian LaPlaca, a partner with Boston law firm Donovan Hatem who specializes in IP litigation. “People thought social media was different, but it really isn’t.”

Still, the decision to use monitoring tools is far from simple. Tom Goodmanson, president and CEO of software maker Calabrio, has tried such software but says, “I’m still struggling with how I want to use it. I’m interested in how people do their jobs. But culture is also incredibly important to me.”

For some, even purchasing such tools signals a larger problem. “I have enough faith and trust that I’ve got the right people in the right roles that they aren’t going to go out and damage the company,” says Tim Wissner, CFO of Windermere Real Estate. “If you don’t feel that way, then Facebook is not your biggest problem.”

Social Security

An effective social-media policy should:

1. Explain the scope of prohibited activities — no defaming bosses, harassing co-workers, or revealing company secrets.

2. Clarify which employees are affected by the policy. For some, social media is part of their jobs; others may be limited to using it outside work or on breaks.

3. Describe any monitoring system in place — who uses it, and how.

4. Explain the penalties. What degree of enforcement can employees expect, and what consequences might they face?