With an increasingly mobile workforce, and more employees working from home or other remote locations, keeping employees not only communicating, but feeling and acting like a team is an ongoing challenge. More and more companies are meeting that challenge by creating in-house social networks, using such tools as Yammer or the NewsGator Social Sites add-on for Microsoft Office SharePoint.

But these new internal networks come with a certain amount of uncertainty. Does letting employees post on an in-house social network mean a company risks privacy or confidentiality violations?

Probably not. "There are a lot of lawsuits over the use of external social networks, but I don't know of any that are about internal social media," notes Tom Bell, partner at Perkins Coie. "The risk is less. Most concerns over public social networks focus on three things: infringement of intellectual property, the posting of confidential information, and committing some sort of tort, such as defamation or libel. In all three cases, the chances of a problem are reduced when the network is limited to employees."

Anxiety about legal implications

"I've worked with several firms to bring in Web 2.0 elements such as social networks, and there's always a lot of anxiety," notes Daniel Gasparro, CIO at the law firm Howrey. "Then when they actually put it in, employee behavior isn't a problem." There's a simple explanation as to why employees might be better behaved on an internal social network: they're likely to assume that the boss will read what they post, where they may not think this will happen on, say, Facebook.

Even though employees are more likely to be on their best behavior when using internal networks, you still need an official policy in place to govern what your users can and can't post there. "You'll always have a rogue employee, so you do need to have a policy, and it should be reviewed by your legal team," notes Sharon Carleton, president of Ervin & Smith, a marketing and PR company that uses Yammer.

How can you craft an effective internal social media policy? Here are some guidelines to help you get started:

  • Assume employee posts might get out into the world. "Don't rely on a false sense of security that everything you've posted will stay internal," advises Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist for Levick Strategic Communications. "The one thing we know about digital media is that things can be shared, and shared forever. So a good rule is not to post anything to an internal social network that you wouldn't want to see on Facebook."
  • Use your existing policy. In fact, Kerley recommends using your company policy governing the use of external social networks to your internal one as well. Gasparro on the other hand, suggests extending your company's email policy to internal social media. Either way, take advantage of the policies you already have in place instead of starting from scratch.
  • Decide who can post about what. Many social media policies give only one or two key employees the authority to post on a company's behalf to a public social network. Needless to say, an internal social network needs to be open to posts from all employees. But that doesn't mean every employee gets to post about every topic. "For instance, you might want human resources to be the only team that can post on human resources topics," says Adam Miller, president and CEO of Cornerstone OnDemand, which provides learning and talent management software, including an internal social networking product.
  • Have subject matter experts monitor posts. "In a small or mid-sized company, you can't afford to have an employee monitor the social network full time," Miller notes. "It's smarter to have experts on specific topics monitor their own topic. For instance, the vice president of sales could monitor all posts relating to sales, and take down any that violate the policy.
  • Respond quickly to problems. One key difference between an internal social network and an external one is that the internal network is completely within your company's control. So use that control to quickly remove any posts that violate your policy. "The nice thing about social networking tools is that they provide detailed reports and instantaneous updates," Gasparro says. "You can take something down much more quickly if it's a problem."