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Tracking your employees' social networking activity: Should you do it?

Brian O'Connell

It’s the ultimate “Gordian Knot” for business owners.

With so much riding on corporate ethics, should an entrepreneur try to protect his or her company’s reputation from employees’ loose, careless and sometimes dangerous social networking practices?

Not too surprisingly, employers and employees disagree on whether management should be peeking in on workers’ social networking correspondence.

According to a study by Deloitte, six out of 10 managers say they have a “right to know” how employees present themselves on social networks.

That right to know, executives say, stems from management’s need to evaluate any risk potential from such networks, Deloitte says.

But 53 percent of employees disagree, Deloitte adds. They say that management should have a “hands-off” stance on checking employees’ private Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. Young workers aged 18-34 were especially adamant about keeping their social networking messages away from the boss. Sixty-three percent of survey respondents in that age group say employers have “no business” tracking their online activity.

Another study tracks the “after the fact” ramifications of employers checking workers’ private online messages.

Researchers at Kansas State University call the issue a “double-edged sword,” and add that using sites like Social Intelligence, which tracks private messages for companies, could be inviting trouble.

"I understand the need of a business to protect its reputation," notes Diane Swanson, professor of management and chair of a business ethics education initiative at KSU. "But in terms of employees' rights, the practice coexists uneasily with the expectation of personal privacy."

High atop the list of staff objections to companies peering into their online lives are two key words, researchers say – “fear” and “trust.” If you feel that your shop needs to know what your employees are saying on social networks, KSU researchers advise bringing employees on board in crafting review practices that are non-invasive and non-threatening to staffers.

"A company should provide full disclosure of its monitoring practices and the consequences employees would face if they violated stated policy and hurt the business' reputation," Swanson said.

Your best bet? Start early, and let employees know the day they’re hired (or better yet, in the interview process) that your company may be checking their social networking practices, but only using keywords like the name of your company, the name of any of your managers, the name of any competitors, and the name of your industry.

"If a business is worried about this, the best way to handle it proactively is for the expectations to be laid down when employees are hired," Swanson explained. "This should be followed by training sessions and discussions related to performance evaluations. That way, management can strive to head off problems and be part of the solution instead of being viewed as heavy-handed."

It’s an interesting dilemma – just how nosy should you be as a business owner?

Only as much as you need to be to protect your company’s reputation. And let your employees know you’re taking a peek.

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