By ERIN GAZICA, a freelance writer from Pottstown, Pa.
Think social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have been around long enough for people to figure out that, unless you're Perez Hilton, it's not a good idea to mix business with pleasure? Think again.
Employers have a lot to worry about when it comes to their employees using social media. A national online survey of more than 2,000 adults showed one out of eight respondents post work-related content on social media sites. What's more, 30 percent agree that it's OK to post content about their employer as long as it's true, and 76 percent are not very concerned or not at all concerned about information posted online causing professional damage.
"If you combine the growth in the use of social media and the lack of awareness among employees and employers on how this is really changing the corporate landscape, that's really increasing a company's exposure," said Kathy Swendsen, president of Travelers Global Technology, which sponsored the survey.
"They are essentially the same risks that have always plagued employers, but what's different here is that this is user-generated content that can be shared with millions of people in a matter of seconds. And once you publish something, it's impossible to remove that information," she said.
According to John Edward Love, CPCU, president and executive director of TechAssure Association Inc., a nonprofit trade association of insurance agents specializing in technology-based risks, social networking is a legitimate concern for employers.
"There's a real fear that there are landmines out there that the companies are not even aware of," he said.
Love paints a picture of an employee comfortable chatting with friends about his day-to-day life and posting a derisive comment on his Facebook page about his place of employment, or maybe about a competitor, supplier, customer or other business partner. Suddenly, there is a public relations nightmare, and the employer has to face a barrage of questions from the press.
Really? Isn't that a bit of an exaggerated, worst-case scenario?
"I thought Y2K was overblown beforehand, and that proved to be true," Love said. "But I don't think the concerns about social networking are overblown. I think there are people that are posting offensive or libelous comments on a daily basis and just can't imagine that companies are going to be laid-back about their competitors making disparaging comments."
Love suggests insurance agents and brokers broach the subject with clients by asking if they have already had any incidences with social networking and whether they've had management discussions about the issue.
The next step is to ask for a copy of the company's Internet privacy policies and to talk to the IT director about whether or not they have existing programs to block social media sites. Love said that companies are developing protocols to either block social media sites or use outside vendors to monitor employee usage of the sites.
"I think you'll see best practices will be employers providing video-based training for their employees, for example," he said. "Before you are authorized to use any social networking sites, you have to complete a 30-minute training session on proper practices. That will become standard. It will start with the big companies and it will filter down."
When it comes to insurance though, Love said it will take a while for social networking to have a presence. He points to the years it took for widespread acceptance of employment practices liability and cyberliability insurance.
"The problem is the adoption period is several years, and the risk is now," he said. "Twitter didn't exist five years ago, wasn't popular two years ago and now it's just exploding. Companies are going to have to more rapidly adopt risk management techniques instead of just waiting to see what happens."
Easier said than done. Chad Scheller, a senior vice president with Marsh in San Jose, Calif., and a 2009 Technology Power BrokerTM, said that, although the Travelers study was an eye-opener, brokers should be talking to their clients about incorporating social networking policies into their risk management programs. He said he thinks buy-in will be hard to come by.
"Right now, it's not something that they're all that concerned about," he said.
"Everybody knows that there's a danger involved with social networking, but I don't think everyone's really thought about the risks involved. In general, we have a hard enough time getting them to buy e-risk coverage for selling products online, hackers, anything," he said.
Adds Scheller, "We are a reactionary industry, there has to be a claim first. As soon as something happens, everybody will react."
Results of the Travelers survey are available at www.travelers.com/business/technology.
September 4, 2009
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