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All it takes is a mouse click or two to enhance the business prospects of the social media-savvy company — or land it in hot water.

As the use of social media increases, so do the ethical and legal pitfalls of information control. That was illustrated by the passage this spring of a new Maryland law prohibiting employers, with rare exceptions, from asking for personal account passwords from job applicants or employees.

But other legal dangers of social media use are becoming increasingly evident. Businesses struggle to balance their embrace of social media with the potential for misuse. And for many, they rely on oral guidelines, rather than documented policy.

“We consider ourselves as a business to be at the forefront of engaging social media to present a comprehensive image to the public,” said Eric Vermeiren, communication manager for Clean Currents, an alternative energy company in Silver Spring.

Besides having a corporate presence on major social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, Clean Currents encourages its employees to use social media to keep up with company events and promote the company. Although Clean Currents lacks defined restrictions on employees’ use of social media, the company discourages oversaturating the cyberspace with too much or irrelevant information, Vermeiren said.

Clean Currents has 22 employees.

“We’re in the middle of fleshing out a longer social media strategy,” Vermeiren said, adding that “there is a bit of a back door” when it comes to employees switching between the company’s and their personal accounts.

One danger is the potential for employees to take a company’s social media followers with them should they change jobs, said Susan Stobbart Shapiro, a partner with Council, Baradel, Kosmeri & Nolan in Annapolis. At a recent seminar for the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council, Shapiro presented the case of Phone Dog in South Carolina, in which an employee had used his personal Twitter account to promote Phone Dog. But once he left Phone Dog, that account and its many followers went with him, leaving Phone Dog in the lurch.

“The old-school non-compete language needs to be revised to address this new medium,” Shapiro said, adding that social media legal concerns have cropped up more within the last three years.

The ‘Golden Rule’Standard Solar, a solar power company in Rockville, applies a “Golden Rule” approach in allowing employees to use social media, said marketing manager Marisa Hartman.

“We want our employees to feel engaged, but they are representing the company. We enforce customary office policies on the use of social media, but there are no restrictions,” she said.

Standard Solar, with more than 80 employees, has a social media hub on its website.

Social marketing firm Vocus in Beltsville has an advantage over many employers when it comes to regulating employees’ use of social media, said spokesman Frank Strong, as most of its people coming onto the job already have a good understanding of how social media works.

Vocus employs 1,000 worldwide, with 600 at its Beltsville headquarters.

“My rule of thumb is when you’re trying to grow a community, you’re growing it for the company,” Strong said. “The biggest things companies struggle with is liberty and transparency. It has to be coaching and guiding and not a controlling mechanism. Communication is becoming more informal, and letting loose the control is a part of that.”

Strong said Vocus has no documented rules on social media use but provides instructional presentations to new employees.

“Certainly folks may make mistakes, and you can use them as an opportunity to learn,” he said.

‘Like a cocktail party’

Vocus had to learn from its own mistake several years ago when its employees used an online forum to post company webinars, Strong said. The forum’s moderator chastised Vocus for pitching its business without ever getting to know the people on the forum. Vocus amended its strategy to engage more with the forum community, he said.

“Social media is like a cocktail party. You don’t just come in and start selling. You have to let people get to know you,” Strong said.

Sourcefire, a cybersecurity company in Columbia, typically leaves most of its social media use up its spokesmen, said Jennifer Leggio, vice president of corporate communications.

She said the 500-employee company instructs employees not to discuss the company on their personal accounts, while the spokesmen are told not to mention financial information or name customers. Sourcefire also uses a social media monitoring tool to keep tabs on what is being said about it throughout the Internet, Leggio said.

“Sourcefire is as involved in social media as we need to be from a marketing perspective. That’s where the customers are, and we want to be there to promote what we’re doing and better serve,” she said. “Social media is just one component of everything else.”

‘The law is unsettled’

But the lack of written policies also raises concerns about an employee’s privacy when using company property, Shapiro said. She cited examples of managers viewing employee email on work computers if employees leave their passwords stored or employers using global-positioning technology to track an employee’s location. Shapiro also warned about employees placing company data on personal mobile devices, which might require remote memory wipes if lost.

“The law is unsettled, but businesses that engage in social media need to think how things could go wrong and plan for them in advance,” Shapiro said. “If you understand these issues, you can be ready.”

With most of these issues, written understandings, such as receiving permission to place GPS tracking on a mobile device or vehicle, can save a lot of trouble down the road, she said.

A new form of background check

One of the most contentious issues is the use of social media when considering a job applicant, Shapiro said.

“More and more people are turning to social media for hiring,” Shapiro said.

“LinkedIn is the first place to go,” Vermeiren said of the professional networking site that provides profiles and recommendations. “Google will point to Facebook and Twitter presences as well.”

LinkedIn works especially well for recruiting and checking up on people because of the recommendations, Strong said.

As business columnist Terri Dougherty of J.J. Keller & Associates pointed out in a recent report, these online biographies make it “fairly easy to see if a job applicant is consistent in portraying himself or herself, particularly in regard to stated institution, graduation and degree information.”

Strong said Vocus also works in social media to find top talents, particularly for its marketing staff.

“We want someone with a social media presence,” he said.

He said Vocus also has a person dedicated to recruiting through social media via blog posts and profiling employees already at Vocus.

“Despite the economy and the constant drumbeat of low employment, recruiting is highly competitive,” Strong said.

At Sourcefire, hiring decisions are never made based on online postings, but people should be aware of what type of presence they have online, Leggio said.

“It’s like a job interview. You don’t want to show up in your pajamas,” she said.

Shapiro cautioned employers that use social media searches as supplements to background checks, saying they might find something they were not seeking.

For example, if an employer clicked on a Facebook profile and saw a message from someone congratulating a job applicant on his gay wedding, that knowledge is now with the employer. If the employer later declines to hire the applicant, the employer might be susceptible to discrimination charges, the same as if the person had been asked to disclose his sexual identity in an interview, she said.

“They are things to keep in mind,” Shapiro said.

lrobbins@gazette.net