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Good Social Network Protocol is Really a Matter of Common Sense

common senseNPR's Talk of the Nation produced a program this week about the social media habits of employees in an era when a person's online activity may cost them their job. A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) changes the rules slightly about what can be deemed a fireable offense, but employers continue to use a person's social network habits as a grounds for terminating them or as a reason not to hire them in the first place. The NLRB's policy update may protect some new activities, such as using social networks as a forum for discussions about discrimination or unfair workplace practices, but much of what gets employees in trouble will not be protected activity.

One thing an employer (or firm) can to do combat inappropriate online activity is to institute a social media use policy. Use policies are an especially good idea for larger firms at which multiple associates and staff may be visiting and using social networks in both a personal and professional capacity. Policies may be broad or specific as a matter of firm preference, but should at least cover:

1. The responsibilities of each individual. Emphasize that everyone is responsible for what they write and should therefore use their best judgement. If there are certain associates or staff responsible for specific updates, spell this out and provide guidelines for style.

2. An explanation of why the firm engages in social media. What are the goals of social media activity? How will those responsible for posting work together to attain those goals?

3. A confidentiality policy. Clearly lay out what constitutes a compromise of firm or client confidentiality. Just because you are online does not mean you can all of a sudden start introducing prejudicial information about a client before trial. (You would be surprised – this happens.)

4. A description of your target audience. To whom are you writing? How can you bring value to that audience? What tone is most appropriate for that audience? Your firm must establish its own voice, and that voice must be appropriate for the clients and community you are trying to attract.

5. A clear call to respect copyright. Social networks encourage us to share and share alike, and a lot of people produce images with the express purpose of receiving as many shares as possible. But not everyone wants you to use their intellectual property for free. Be aware of fair use guidelines, particularly if you are quoting someone else's writing, and do not pirate images that require a license.

6. A plan for productivity and priorities. How much time should staff spend online? At what point does too much time on social media sites cause productivity to suffer?

Social media use policies can establish a set of guidelines that serve as a reminder: What every team member does online is important to the culture and reputation of the firm. But official documents aside, what constitutes good online protocol is mostly a matter of common sense. No matter how tight you think your privacy settings are, there is always a chance that your posts will reach the public at large. If you would be embarrassed for your mother to see something you are writing, don't post it.

In addition to simply not doing something that could result in embarrassment of some sort for you or your firm, try to take the positive step of being genuine in your online interactions. Use your real name, and when you are engaging in professional interaction, consider using your title as well. Share your thoughts but listen to others, and give them credit when appropriate.

It is easy to get caught up in the anonymity of the web and engage in harmful behavior that would never happen in a different environment. Remember that your firm is attempting to build a community of connections with the ultimate goal of bringing in more cases. Community members are supportive and attentive, they post information that provides a benefit for users and they do not engage in overly competitive or ego-centric behavior. Building relationships takes time and respect online, just as it does offline. Firms that emphasize this reality will find a greater reward over time.