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By Katherine Raynolds, staff attorney with the National Association of Realtors® in Chicago.

It’s time to draft a policy for regulating employee use of blogs, chats, and social networks.

How can you ensure that the opinion a staff person posts on a real estate listserv isn’t taken as the association’s opinion? Can you discipline -employees for something they post on their personal blog or LinkedIn profile? Should you monitor the chat room activity of an employee’s Secondlife Avatar?
Social networking* has opened up a whole new realm of employee activity that associations should regulate with clear policy to avoid legal liability.

This column, coupled with this issue's “HR Connection" column, addresses these issues and more as we cover what today’s associations need in their technology and electronic communication employee policy.

Most association employee manuals include a policy regarding employees’ use of employer--provided technology, such as phones, faxes, PDAs, and desktop and laptop computers. But if your policy does not also address an employee’s use of blogs or social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, then it needs an update.

A well-drafted electronic communication policy will set guidelines employees must follow when engaging in such media, and will put them on notice of the consequences of misuse. When drafting your policy, consider the following issues and be aware that employment laws vary from state to state, so it is imperative that you consult a local attorney to determine the laws that apply to your association.

1. No Such thing as privacy
Recent litigation has confirmed that in many states, absent a specific policy allowing privacy, employees have no expectation of privacy when it comes to communicating on employer-provided devices. Any e-mail, blog post, or text message sent from a device provided by an employer (including a BlackBerry, PDA, or laptop used outside of the office) may be monitored by the employer at the employer’s sole discretion. Some states, such as California, provide greater privacy protection to employees than other states, so be sure to consult a local attorney to ensure your understanding of and compliance with state law.

2. Limit Social networking at work
If social networking is part of the employee’s job duties, then the employee may be permitted whatever time necessary to fulfill the duties. If blogging is not promoted as part of the office culture, then you may want to restrict or block access to social network Web sites. Many employers have found that some employees can become practically addicted to monitoring their Facebook and -MySpace pages, which is not only a drain on productivity but a drain on the association’s bandwidth as well. If you allow limited and occasional use of the -employer-provided technology for employees’ personal blogging, expressly declare in your policy that such blogging must not violate other policies of the association, may not be detrimental to the association’s best interest, and may not interfere with an employee’s regular work duties.

3. Watch Blogging away from work
Your policy may or may not address personal blogging by an employee when the blogging does not take place on employer-provided equipment and is done outside of work hours. However, you may want to explicitly prohibit employees from disparaging or slandering the association on any blog whatsoever. Also, when an employee is blogging on industry-related Web sites, regardless of when or where the blogging takes place, the association may require the employee to use a disclaimer. For example, a disclaimer may state: “The postings on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, policies, positions, or strategies of my employer, the association of REALTORS®.”

4. Restrict Use of association info
Your electronic communications policy should prohibit employees from posting confidential or proprietary association information on any form of electronic media. If a publication, report, or video posted on the association’s Web site is password--protected for members only, make sure staff understand that such material cannot be reposted on public blogs or distributed to nonmembers via a listserv. You may also want to prohibit employees from using the association’s logo or the REALTOR® “R” on their personal social networking pages.

5. Fired for blogging?
Employees should be advised that a violation of the association’s policy could result in the same consequences as a violation of other employee conduct--related provisions in the employee manual, including termination. There have been many instances nationwide where an employee has been fired for content he or she posted to a personal blog. In some of those cases, other employees alerted the employer to the objectionable blog content. Therefore, your policy should also detail an internal reporting procedure by which employees may report allegedly inappropriate blogging or other use of employee--provided technology by other employees. And, as with other employee policies, the electronic communication policy should be enforced consistently at all levels of the association.

6. Promote Good Blogging Guidelines
Many associations host blogs or participate in social networks and encourage their staff and leadership to do so as well. For example, if you visit the Facebook page of the National Association of REALTORS®, you’ll see nearly 100 state and local associations listed under NAR’s “Favorite Pages.” If your staff engages in work-related social networking, you may want to provide guidelines—apart from your policy—that assist employees and leadership with the language and content of their posts.

These guidelines may ask employees to ensure that their posts are honest, accurate, and factual. The guidelines may also prohibit certain content, such as gossip, rumors, falsehoods, defamatory comments, the copyrighted material of others, personal attacks, or harassing or otherwise inappropriate or offensive content. When expressing opinions that are not those of the association, the employee and leadership should also use a disclaimer, such as the one mentioned above.

Drafting an electronic communication policy and content guidelines is no easy task. But without one your association may be open to legal risk. Now take a look at “HR Connection” for more guidance on employee use of your association-provided technology.


*For the purpose of this article, “social networking” means posting or uploading comments to all types of interactive electronic communication media, including but not limited to: Web sites, blogs, social networks, discussion boards, and listservs.