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The perils of unauthorized disclosures about the business – or worse, derogatory comments posted for anyone to see – cannot be understated, say specialists in employment law.KEMAL BA/Getty Images/iStockphoto

With employees spending time on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, both at work and on their own time, employers are caught in a quandary. Should they forbid staff from talking about their employers online? Or should they establish guidelines and trust employees to exercise good judgment?

The potential benefits of employees touting their organization's expertise (and good works) through blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts are enormous, especially for small companies with limited marketing budgets.

But the perils of unauthorized disclosures about the business – or worse, derogatory comments posted for anyone to see – cannot be understated, say specialists in employment law.

One rogue tweet can spark a firestorm of unwanted attention, as was the case in March when a junior staffer working in Alberta Premier Alison Redford's office questioned a political opponent's commitment to families because she did not have children of her own. The target of the Twitter comment, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, responded in a news release that she and her husband wanted to have a child together but couldn't. The staffer has since resigned.

Many organizations clamp down on social media use because of these risks and the fear that employees are wasting time, says marketing specialist Joel Marans, manager of design and delivery at Toronto-based technology services company Softchoice Corp.

"About 18 months ago, Softchoice followed that same path," he said. The information technology department shut everything down. "You couldn't access Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and the like," Mr. Marans said.

It took about six months for Softchoice to reverse its decision, he recalled. Mr. Marans argued that the benefits of being able to engage with customers – tweeting about trends and blogging about corporate developments – outweighed the risks.

After examining the social media policies of Intel Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Dell Inc. – "the models in the space" – he crafted guidelines to protect Softchoice and keep employees from making unintended blunders, whether they are using social media for professional or personal use.

The restrictions were lifted, with the proviso that employees obtain permission from their managers before referring to Softchoice, said Mr. Marans, who coaches his colleagues on how to participate online "in an engaging and responsible way."

Much of it is common sense, he said, but nonetheless it is spelled out to minimize the risks.

"Perception is reality. What you share reflects on all of us, so use your best judgment to protect Softchoice's first-class reputation. Post meaningful, respectful comments – in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive. Understand that proprietary and/or confidential information should stay that way. Always pause and think before posting.

"If you make a mistake, admit it. Be honest and quick with your correction," he said.

The goal is to encourage participation online rather than suppress it, added Softchoice's communications manager, Eric Gardiner. There are informative blogs, such as Mr. Marans's recent post on "cloud computing made simple," and reports on an employee-led initiative to build computer labs for children in Bali. Even the office dogs have their own monthly blog; one recently confessed to having stolen someone's meatloaf lunch from the counter.

Some organizations are asking for help in drafting their social media policies. Marc Yonkers, chief financial officer of Marcone APW ULC, a Mississauga, Ont.-based distributor of appliance parts, enlisted Toronto-based human resources consulting firm e2r Solutions.

"There's so much out there now in this digital world that you have to be very mindful," Mr. Yonkers said. "You really have to be very careful about what you say."

This applies even to personal social media activity that could be linked to the company, say, through a Facebook photo of an employee wearing a Marcone hat or T-shirt, he said.

In fact, a number of cases tracked by Toronto-based labour law publisher Lancaster House involve employees getting into trouble for postings to their personal blogs and Facebook accounts. In one such case, an Alberta government employee was fired for posting unflattering comments about her co-workers in a blog entry she called "Aliens around the coffee table." (She was later reinstated because a court found that the employer had not provided adequate notice of the disciplinary hearing or given her the opportunity to choose her own union representative.)

Similarly, in an arbitration decision widely cited in employment law circles, a care provider at a home for the aged in Chatham-Kent, Ont., was fired after she posted photographs of the home's residents and comments critical of her employer, co-workers and residents on her personal blog, Lancaster House reported. "That she intended the information to be accessible only to co-workers, and did not realize that the website defaulted to public access, did not trump the fact that she had control over public access and did not exercise due care."

Krista Hiddema and Stuart Ducoffe, partners in a Toronto-based employment law firm and co-founders of e2r Solutions, said employees caught in such predicaments often cite their right to freedom of expression as a defence.

"But the short answer to that is no, you can't say whatever you want, because you are in a public forum and you are saying things that are damaging to the reputation of your employer, or are saying things that are inappropriate about your co-workers," Mr. Ducoffe said in an interview.

Or, in the absence of a company policy, employees will argue that they had no way of knowing they were offside.

All employers should have policies, Ms. Hiddema said.

"Even if you are a five-person company, you should absolutely have a policy where you clearly lay out what is and is not acceptable as it relates to social media and [mainstream]media," she said.

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