Feds lay down social media rules; enterprises should, too

U.S. government spells out guidelines for what workers can tweet and post, something many companies have yet to do

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The U.S. government is making it clear to federal employees what they can and cannot post or tweet about on their favorite social networks.

It's an idea that enterprises should note and use to put their own guidelines in place, according to industry analysts.

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics released the guidelines, dubbed Standards of Conduct and Social Media, last week. The rules cover not using social media during work time and on government property, as well as not using their official title, using social media to look for another job and not disclosing "non-public information" to further private interests.

"In light of the ever evolving nature of social media, the foregoing advice is not intended to be comprehensive," the Office of Government Ethics noted in the advisory. "[The office] expects to issue additional guidance in the future, addressing questions outside the scope of this Legal Advisory."

With social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+ taking up so much of people's time -- whether their own or work time -- it makes sense for the government to lay out specific rules for federal employees.

That same idea goes for enterprises.

"I would recommend that companies put their own policies in place," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "The positive is that the government appears to understand the value of social media. They just want to ensure it's used for government use cases. I think it helps avoid situations that might be the cause of termination or possibly even bring a lawsuit."

What surprises Kerravala is the number of companies that have not laid out their own guidelines, leaving employees thinking there are no restrictions on what they can post or tweet about their bosses, the company or its products.

"Frankly, all companies should have a plan like this," he added. "From the interviews I've done, my estimate is that less than one-third of companies have a social media policy. And it's unfair of companies to expect employees to comply with something that's not in writing."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said he's not surprised at the number of companies still lacking social media policies; despite the popularity of sites like Facebook and Twitter, social networks are still a fairly new creature for enterprises to address.

"This is always the case when advancements in tech are much farther ahead than laws, rules and regulations," he noted. "Today, we think Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are key ways to stay in touch, but it's important to remember these are all brand new. Ten or so years ago, no one used any of these services."

Another issue is that people tend to overshare online.

The same person who gives endless personal details on Facebook might also be someone who would readily say something negative about the boss or an employer.

"First we use them. Then we misuse them. Then we carry this misuse to our jobs, whether that be government jobs or private corporate jobs," said Kagan. "When that happens, every one of us suddenly has a much larger megaphone than ever. And this often conflicts with the carefully crafted marketing messages companies work to build."

However, there's a difference between setting out rules to guide people and setting out rules so a company, or the government, has a legal basis for terminating a worker.

Both are legitimate reasons to have policies in place. But Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, noted that the government's new rules should have been written more clearly if they're meant to help workers stay within the social media lines.

"If they wanted to fix the behavior, they should have kept it far simpler: 'Don't use your title. Don't talk about anything your organization is related to and don't share any internal information,'" he said. "People generally don't read or remember long lists like this, but they can be held accountable by them. So this is more of a CYA scapegoat tool than an attempt to really mitigate the problem."

Kagan, though, said the government has taken a positive step by offering guidance.

"The hard part will be separating people from their social networks while at work," he said. "Just because this is the new policy does not mean all problems will mysteriously disappear. If you believe that, then you are naive. It will take time and effort, but this is the right step."

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