Kate Hodgkiss: A social media policy is vital to modern firms

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Digital information is easy to store …and to leak. Both Hewlett-Packard and Dell had news of a new tablet leaked in advance of launch and Renault had to suspend three executives who were accused of passing blueprints of electric cars to rivals.

Yet the findings of a report commissioned by DLA Piper show employers fail to appreciate confidential information is a unique business asset. Our study of more than 250 employers found many do not recognise that advances in technology and social media pose a risk to corporate secrets, and the survival of a business.

This is particularly true of the risks posed by employees who leave. They can cause untold damage by utilising the knowledge and contacts that they have acquired during their employment.

For example, the study found more than a third (36 per cent) of employers allow staff to store business contacts on databases beyond their control. And half of companies have not reviewed their e-mail, internet or social media in the past year or reviewed their contracts to keep up with the pace of technological change.

And finally, 60 per cent are concerned about the threats posed to confidential information by social media, but 61 per cent don’t have a social media policy.

So how can employers protect themselves? We recommend a seven-step approach. Once aware of an employee switching to a rival firm, the company needs to assess the full impact of their conduct before utilising an internal management team and legal advisers. Gathering evidence is the final step before deciding on whether legal action is required.

With new members of staff, employers can protect confidential information through a clear social media policy, physical and electronic security measures; training; and a tailored contract that might include a gardening leave clause. Companies can also explore copyright, patents and database rights as further avenues to protect sensitive information.

Social media has transformed the way we work today but it doesn’t have to be a minefield – something we’ll be exploring at a series of UK seminars, which start in Edinburgh today.

• Kate Hodgkiss is a partner at DLA Piper.