Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh, my!

A huge global law firm with thousands of clients sent out a social media survey and got 110 responses. Hmmmm. If the possible respondents were the 5,000 US public companies (as opposed to a percentage of global companies), that’s only a 0.02% sample. You’ve heard of big data? 110 employers of all the employers in the world is itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie data.

Then, they issued a fancy report drawing dramatic conclusions from their survey results. They used percentages to make it sound really important and scary, but here are the actual numbers.

  • 88 companies had social media policies (Yawn.)
  • 88 companies took precautions against misuse of confidential information. (This should be higher, what’s wrong?)
  • 78 companies took precautions against misrepresenting the views of the business (This is probably requiring disclaimers that mean absolutely nothing and can actually backfire.)
  • 74 companies took precautions against inappropriate nonbusiness use (what is “inappropriate,” and it may not be legal.)
  • 70 companies took precautions against employees making disparaging remarks about the business or employees (this probably is not legal).
  • 70 companies took precautions against employees using social media for harassment (this is one place where every employer should take precautions, so why isn’t this all of them?).

What does any of this mean?  Not much. This is not news, or even very interesting. So why am I boring you with it? Because that’s not what they said. Their “key finding” was:

While nearly 90 percent of companies use social media for business purposes and almost half allow employees to use social media for non-business activities, more than 70 percent of employers report having to take disciplinary action against employees for misuse (a significant uptick from 35 percent in 2012).

Okay, that means 77 companies somewhere in the entire world disciplined someone over social media use, up from 39 companies. This is a whopping increase of 38 people who did something stupid on social media in 2013.  Seems a little low when you put it that way, right?

The survey is really just link-bait for a good discussion and list of international social media laws. Still, these are lawyers who are supposed to know something about weight of evidence and proof of facts. If you want to see how it is done right, download the Social Media Privacy Legislation Desktop Reference from Seyfarth Shaw.

In a great piece explaining why companies may not want to jump into action based on this survey, Donna Ballman, @employeeatty, took the findings to task over the presumption that 70 percent of employers think that employee personal use of social media is their business. Also the celebrities often decide to buy YouTube views and subscribers because of this fear.

I just think the report doesn’t say anything. At all.

First, in order to acquire meaningful data, you need a meaningful sample size. When you simply rely on the data available, like the number of your clients who bothered to respond to your survey, you risk both bias and inaccuracy. Large companies that answer surveys from their big employment law firms may have a different take than if you asked 110 of the the owners of any of the 6 million employers in the US.  110 of 6 million is 0.000002% of employers. Size matters.

Then you need to actually explain what the heck you mean. “Having a social media policy” can mean anything from “be professional” to a multi-page tome. One law firm, obviously not an employment law firm, has a policy that says “Be smart, don’t be stupid.” Would that policy cover “inappropriate nonbusiness use”? Maybe. Who knows?

Then, what does “taking precautions” mean? It probably means having a policy.

It’s important to remember that lawyers and vendors make money by scaring employers into believing they need a policy, or a product, or a new software system to protect themselves from problems that may not even exist.  And employers love policies because they can simply issue edicts instead of actually finding out what the problem is, if any, and addressing it.

But policies don’t solve problems. They certainly don’t prevent people from doing or saying stupid things on social media. As appealing as it may be, you can’t legislate good judgment.

So before you get all excited about the risks of social media, or anything else lawyers are telling you to worry about, find out if you actually have a problem. Then deal with that.

There are lots of really great employment lawyers out there that care about you, your business, and helping you solve your individual problems. Just don’t rely on hype and surveys that pretend to say things, but don’t.

Additional Resources

8 Reasons Social Media Policies Backfire
What if Your Policy Violates the NLRA?
Trash Your Social Media Policy
Behaving Badly Online and Defamation
It’s No Secret: Why Contacts Aren’t Trade Secrets
Social Media at Work–Who Owns the Content?
Social Media, Blogging and Copyright
Social Media Policies: Who’s In Control?
Don’t Take Bad Social Media Advice
Looking Bad
FTC Social Media Disclosure Requirements
How Employers Can Still See Employee Social Media Accounts
Trash Your Policy Manual (Ignite HR)
Trash Your Policy Manual

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