The Internet has changed our lives forever, and with development of social media, individuals and businesses can enjoy a faster and easier way to communicate and distribute information to the world or a select few.

For many companies, social media can serve as a powerful marketing tool – and the best part is it’s generally free. While businesses may not be able to control what others are saying, they can create messages that positively reflect the company’s brand or image offering a unique way to further engage existing and potential customers.

In addition to conventional marketing and advertising vehicles, companies can use social networking sites to gather data and interact in real time with employees, customers, prospects and investors.

When it comes to talent management, many employers have relied on social media to help recruit or research potential employees. A recent CareerBuilder survey reported the number of employers using social networking sites to screen candidates has more than doubled in the past year.

Yet while social media has many upsides for business, employers should be mindful of how employees are using it.

Downside to online socializing
Considering all of the convenience the Internet and social media have to offer, there also is a downside. Employees may be spending more time surfing and chatting, and less time working. A recent study by Nucleus Research reported that companies that allow access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5 percent in total employee productivity.

In addition, while employees may candidly express their views on a social Web site about their favorite new song, they also may publicly vent their frustrations about a confidential project, co-worker, boss, employer or client. According to Deloitte LLP’s 2009 Ethics and Workplace survey, 74 percent of employees think it is easy to damage a brand’s reputation via sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Set the ground rules
Employers owe it to themselves and to employees to clearly define and communicate company policies and guidelines on Internet and social media use. This includes everything from e-mails and the Internet to blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Is an employee offending a co-worker by watching an inappropriate video at work? Did someone post something controversial or possibly defamatory toward an employee or the company? These are a couple of scenarios that could create potential liabilities for employers if not properly managed.

While companies may not want to completely restrict Internet use during business hours – especially for work-related research – employers should clearly define the company’s expectations and consequences.

For example, it may be acceptable for employees to access the Internet for personal use during breaks. However, the use of social media sites may not be permissible. Another option would be to restrict all personal use of the Internet, e-mail or social media during business hours. Whatever the decision, make sure it is documented and consistently communicated to all employees.

There are a few criteria employers should consider when creating or updating their Internet and electronic communications policy:

• Employees should not post sensitive or confidential company information. This includes using the company name or logo, other than referencing the organization itself as an employer. Employees also should avoid posting any positive or negative comments about projects, co-workers, supervisors, management, clients or prospective clients.

• Set boundaries for business-related relationships on social-networking sites. It may not be a good idea for managers to “friend” employees on Facebook, so to prevent potential discrimination and harassment issues.  

• Many programs exist to help manage electronic communications. This includes software that can block specific Web sites and programs, or pinpoint e-mails containing inappropriate language or documents.

• Building trust and promoting ethics can help employers and employees avoid complications with electronic communications. Employers may not be able to monitor every action taken by each employee, so flexibility sometimes may be the best course of action.

Businesses can enjoy the convenience and luxuries of the Internet and social media to enhance productivity and network with clients, prospects and other businesses. Developing appropriate and specific guidelines, and communicating them to ensure employees understand the rules, can help make cyberspace less stressful for everyone.

Karen Codere is a Chicago-based senior human resources specialist for Administaff, a professional employer organization that serves as a full-service human resources department for small and medium-sized businesses. Call 800-465-3800 or visit