NEW CUMBERLAND - A new social media policy for Hancock County employees tries to strike a balance between free speech rights and responsibility to the county.
The policy, recently approved by Hancock County commissioners and now a part of the county employee policy manual, applies to employees whether they are posting or commenting on county websites, personal sites or third-party sites.
The county's website, which currently is being renovated, does not have any social media components. The policy defines social media as "the group of Internet-based applications that allow for the creation and exchange of user-generated content."
The use of social media by county government employees has increased partly because of the proliferation of smartphones. -- Stephen Huba
Social media include social-networking sites such as Facebook, blogs and micro-blogs such as Twitter, content-sharing sites such as SlideShare, image-sharing sites such as Flickr, discussion boards and chat rooms, third-party rating sites such as Yelp, and smartphone applications, according to the policy.
"The county does not discourage employees from using social media in their personal lives during their personal time on personal devices," the policy says. "This policy is not intended to restrict the flow of useful and appropriate information. The county, however, reminds each and every employee that the nature of the Internet is such that what you 'say' online will be captured forever and can be transmitted endlessly without your consent or knowledge."
Thomas Zielinsky, executive director of the county's Office of Technology and Communications, said the policy was developed over a period of months and in consultation with Weirton attorney Salene Mazur Kraemer, a specialist in business law and technology.
"She and her staff did a very good job. They looked at what our needs were. We took that template to our elected officials and had them read through it and make recommendations," Zielinsky said.
The thrust of the new policy, Zielinsky said, is to ensure that work productivity is not affected by the use of social media and that the county's reputation is not harmed by employees using social media.
"Employees need to know that what they say on social media can come back and bite them," he said. "This does represent (the county) to the people who are going to read all this, and there's definite consequences to that."
Social media use, including personal texting and e-mailing, is discouraged at work.
"We don't think this is appropriate in the work environment," Zielinsky said.
While the policy offers guidelines and suggestions, it also has specific restrictions:
County employees are discouraged from "friending" business partners, residents and customers on Facebook to avoid conflicts of interest. (Connecting through LinkedIn, however, is acceptable for professional purposes.)
Employees caught using social media sites during work hours may be subject to "remedial discipline," up to and including termination. (Publishing any customer information without prior approval or publishing confidential county information may result in immediate termination.)
Social media are not a replacement for face-to-face and personal interactions.
Employees are not to speak on behalf of the county without prior written authorization from the county social media point of contact.
When employees speak or write about the county, they should provide the following disclaimer or something similar: "The views and opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the opinion of my employer, the Hancock County Commission."
Employees are not to post, upload or share any recording or image taken in the workplace or at a county-sponsored event without express advance authorization.
Social media checks may be used in the hiring process but only in conjunction with other recruitment methods.
Employees should not disclose confidential or proprietary information belonging to the county, including prices, revenue, new services, sensitive information, business plans, unannounced strategies and future plans.
"The county respects the free speech rights of all of our employees, but you must remember that citizens, customers, as well as colleagues may have access to online content you post," the policy says. "There is no separation for others between your personal and professional profiles within social media."
Zielinsky said the policy is intended more for education purposes and includes a list of do's and don'ts.
Employees are encouraged to "be a scout" and report potential abuses of the social media policy.
All employees must sign and date the policy, indicating they have read it and understand it.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)