(by Sarah E. Needleman, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – Last year, business owner Paige Darden stumbled upon an employee’s MySpace profile saying this person was planning a two-hour lunch because her boss was out of the office.

Concerned about her small firm’s reputation, which was identified as the writer’s employer, Ms. Darden says she began occasionally checking the profile. While most subsequent posts seemed like harmless venting, she says the employee eventually crossed the line by threatening a co-worker. 

“We realized this was a problem,” says Ms. Darden, co-owner of Beartooth Mapping Inc., a Billings, Mont., provider of mapping products that operates under the name MyTopo and has a staff of 11.

These days, bad employee behavior is no longer confined to cubicle walls. Some workers are now sharing disparaging opinions and even proprietary information about their employers on social media – Web forums that in many cases can be accessed by anyone, including a company’s clients, investors and competitors. Business experts say that kind of exposure could be particularly troublesome for small enterprises, though there are ways owners can cope and even turn the tables to their advantage.

“It’s much easier for a large company to distance themselves from the actions of one employee than it is for a small firm,” says Robby Slaughter, owner of Slaughter Development LLC, an Indianapolis consulting firm that specializes in workplace productivity.

And just one person can make a big impact on an organization. Consider, for example, [in March] the Israeli military called off a raid on a West Bank town after a soldier posted on his Facebook profile that his combat unit was going to “clean up” the area. The soldier was reported by his friends, court-martialed and sentenced to 10 days in prison, according to media reports.

Of course, it’s unlikely that any lives would be a stake if an employee were to reveal private information about a small business he or she works for on a social-media outlet. But such a blunder could result in major embarrassment.

Case in point: Two weeks ago, an employee for Nolcha LLC exposed “crucial details” on Twitter about a potential business deal with a prospective client, says Kerry Bannigan, co-founder of the New York business-services provider to independent fashion designers and retailers. But as far as she could tell, the client never saw the post and the deal went though, she says.

Other firms, however, haven’t been so lucky.

Last year, an account manager for Zorch Sourcing LLC posted on her Facebook profile that she had quit her job at the corporate-merchandise supplier, says Nicole Loftus, founder. This employee had previously befriended several clients she managed on the social-media site, and one of the Chicago firm’s largest clients learned about her resignation this way and lodged a complaint, Ms. Loftus says.

“We have a brand here we have to maintain and I don’t think our clients need to see what our employees are doing on Facebook,” she says. “There needs to be a separation between what’s business and personal.”

Business owners may be able to protect themselves from similar employee snafus by instituting a written policy outlining what kind of content is and isn’t acceptable to post on social media, says Christina Stovall, a director for Odyssey OneSource, a human-resources outsourcing firm in Euless, Texas.

Ms. Stovall recommends discussing the policy with employees in person, and having them sign an acknowlegement form. That way, “You’re laying the groundwork for expectations,” she says.

To nab violators, some business owners frequently conduct Web searches of their companies’ names. Others make a habit of checking employees’ social-media profiles if they’re open to the public or they’ve been granted access. They say such strategies can be helpful for quickly doing damage control, as well as for digging up digital dirt on employees and prospective recruits.

Julie Robinson, owner of Undercover Productions Inc., a staffing agency in Las Vegas, says some of the independent contractors she hires seem to forget that she follows them on Twitter. “One girl said she was out having a great time drinking and she called in sick the next morning,” says Ms. Robinson, who recruits mainly models and dancers for clients in the entertainment industry.

Job hunters also have inadvertently revealed their true colors on social-media sites to Richard Laermer, owner of RLM PR Inc., a public-relations firm in New York. For example, he says he once received an email from a woman claiming she was eager to work for him. On a hunch, he checked Amazon.com, where several books he’s written are for sale. Sure enough, he says he found a scathing review of his work by the very same person.

“People somehow feel like only their friends are going to find this stuff so they tend to be themselves,” says Mr. Laermer. “There’s no acting here. It’s like a lie-detector test.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com.


Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.


1. What concerns do businesses have about employees posting information on Facebook and other social networking sites?

2. According to Christina Stovall, how can business owners protect themselves from online employee posts that could potentially harm a business deal, etc.?

3. How do business owners find out if employees are posting potentially damaging information online about their companies?

4. How might an employee’s negative post about a boss or company affect his/her future employment?

5. What do you think of an employee’s decision to post work-related information on their social networking sites? (Are they “exercising their rights to free speech” or displaying a complete lack of judgment?)


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