Gone are the days when employers generally blocked or otherwise prohibited social networking by their employees.

Why?

The business upside evidently outweighs the potential downside. But still, employees must be informed as to how best to conduct their social networking activities on behalf of their companies.

The used to be worries that employees would use social networking for purely personal pursuits, thus resulting in lost productivity. Of course, those types of fears were present earlier when it came to simple Internet access. The concern was that employees would spend their time Web surfing or online shopping while it work, instead of performing their job functions. But employees ultimately were provided Internet access, just like now they often are allowed to engage in social networking.

The benefit from employee social networking can be tremendous from a business standpoint.

Business partners and customers can be contacted, coordinated and expanded via social networking. Advertising campaigns can be launched and maintained through social networking at a fraction of a cost of traditional advertising. Information about products, services and programs can be disseminated by social networking, and companies essentially can create their own fan base.

Nevertheless, employees can "get it wrong" when it comes to social networking, and they need to be educated by their employers in terms of what will fly and what will not. Employees need to be instructed specifically how to hold themselves out on behalf of their companies and how they are to fulfill the business mission while social networking. There is no "one size fits all" approach here, and it therefore is incumbent on companies to think through carefully their respective approaches.

Employees also need to be informed about not inappropriately disclosing the intellectual property, trade secrets and other confidential information of their companies when engaging in social networking activities. They therefore need to know what is and is not fair game for social networking discussion. They also need to be instructed not to defame or disparage others, and they should be educated whether and how to address business competitors.

Employers may instruct employees as to which social networking sites they can and cannot use, the intended audiences to address, and also that their social networking communications will be monitored. As part of this overall process, companies should work with counsel to draft written social networking policies that will be reviewed, agreed to and executed by employees.