Image: Phoenix Suns' mascot
Barry Gossage  /  NBAE via Getty Images file
The Gorilla, the Phoenix Suns’ mascot, dunks the ball during a break in a game. Just as more employees are using social media for work purposes, the Gorilla uses Twitter to promote the professional basketball team.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/11/2009 6:57:17 PM ET 2009-10-11T22:57:17

Your employer may soon want to muscle in on your Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

Social networking sites help workers connect with family and friends, and they’re great tools for building networks and creating your personal brand. Now a growing number of companies want in on the act, and they want you to help.

Company officials at Symantec Corp., makers of Norton anti-virus software, recently started encouraging workers to “advocate for the company” on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, says Cory Edwards, social media strategist for the company.

Marian Merritt, the company’s Internet Security Advocate, intermingles personal and work-related tweets on her Twitter account: “Landed at LAX. Gals behind me didnt stop yakking (LOUDLY) for ten hrs.” and “Does your school group want FREE Family Online Safety brochures from Norton?”

At eBillme, many sales people use LinkedIn to connect with clients. The company has fan pages on Facebook, and workers from all departments are offered training on how to use social networking sites to spread company information, says Samer Forzley, vice president of marketing for the online ecommerce payment provider. “If they’re tweeting, or have friends they trust on Facebook, it’s okay to once and a while say ‘we have discounts,’ ” he says.

Even the Phoenix Suns’ mascot — “The Gorilla” — is tweeting for his basketball team these days, giving former Suns player and veteran Twitter aficionado Shaquille O’Neal a run for his money.

A recent Gorilla tweet: “I think my friend Rumble the Bison (Oklahoma City Thunder) and I should have a drum off, what do you guys think? Maybe even a Dunk off!?”

Personal vs. professional
Companies see the value in social networking sites as a way to promote their products and services without dishing out big bucks for traditional marketing. Most commonly, organizations set up corporate-branded accounts that are in some ways nameless entities on sites like Facebook and Twitter, said Nate Elliott, principle analyst for Forrester Research. But with so many of their employees already using these sites for personal use, he added, employers are looking to see how they can leverage their reach.

“It’s a really fine line,” says Elliott. “You don’t want to astro turf, create fake grass roots, and you don’t want to command your employees to use personal networks to promote the company.”

Indeed, employees need to tread lightly when they start using their contacts and friends from LinkedIn or Facebook for work purposes. If you leave your job, for example, it’s unclear if those connections belong to you or your employer, labor law experts say. Before the social networking explosion, if an employee had a list of contacts at work established for the sake of generating business or marketing, courts often decided workers had no right to those lists when they left their jobs.

“This is going to be interesting,” says Patricia Abril, assistant professor of business law, School of Business Administration at the University of Miami, about how laws will adapt to this latest Internet machination. “I think what’s at the core of this is a blurring of social and professional. Before it was a lot easier to establish when you were wearing your work hat and when you weren’t.”

There is little if any case law in the United States regarding this issue, but Abril pointed to a United Kingdom case that found in the employer’s favor. A longtime employee of Hays, a London recruiting firm, had been encouraged by his employer to use LinkedIn for his work, but when he left, his former managers accused him of stealing those contacts.

Although laws are different in the United States, Abril says the case is a precursor to the legal battles we may see playing out in American workplaces in the near future as more employees are asked to use social media as part of their jobs.

Whose contacts?
At Symantec, if an employee uses a personal social networking account for work, the contacts belong to the employee even if they leave the company, Edwards says. “There is an inherent risk with allowing employees to do that, because they are building their own personal brand,” he adds.

Beth Harte, community manager for marketing resource Web site MarketingProfs.com, believes if someone puts in the time and the social capital to build up contacts, the contacts should be theirs. That said, she advises employees to negotiate upfront that their contacts are their property, especially if they are hired for a job because of their thousands of followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook.

Before you tweet or post a status update, you should know there are few laws to protect you if you say something dumb about your company on a social networking site and your boss fires you — even if it was your boss who encouraged you to go on Facebook in the first place.

Since employees from all levels and departments, not just marketing or public relations, are being encouraged to use social media “their skill set may not be as refined,” says Nancy Cornish Rodgers, an attorney with Kissinger & Fellman, a law firm that focuses on social media law. So if an employee inadvertently reveals confidential company information or embarrasses the company, the employer “can terminate that employee for that mistake,” she says.

Forzley of eBillme monitors keywords on a host of social networking sites to make sure workers aren’t messing up. “If somebody puts a negative comment on Twitter, I would rather know about it and have them fix it,” he explains.

The company is holding luncheons with employees to explain social media best practices to ensure that such issues stay at a minimum, he says.

Your personal brand
Remember, if you tie your social media persona closely to your employer’s, it may be hard to sell yourself later when you’re looking for a new job or career. And you have to be careful about sharing too much personal information with work associates and work contacts.

Symantec’s Merritt says her LinkedIn account is used more for her own networking, just in case she’s ever in the job market again or has friends who need a new job. And she uses the privacy settings on her Facebook account, creating separate work and family/friends groups to deal with the too-much-personal-information problem. She’s also careful about the silly quizzes she takes on Facebook so she doesn’t come across as unprofessional.

“Occasionally I put things on Twitter that aren’t relevant to work, but I trust people can filter that,” she says. “Twitter feeds go by rapidly, so unless someone visits my Twitter.com page, they might miss it,” she explains. “There is more ‘noise’ on Twitter or more of a crowd effect.”

While full-time social media jobs are becoming more prevalent at many companies, most of the employees that are being asked to tweet or write stuff on Facebook on the side aren’t being paid for the extra work.

But for The Gorilla from the Suns, tweeting doesn’t take much time, especially since mascot coordinator Jose Moreno pitches in with a tweet or two when the mascot’s busy.

The Gorilla, who would not disclose his real name because that might ruin the mascot illusion, says he doesn’t mix his personal life with his work life on social media sites, maintaining his own personal page on Facebook.

“I have two separate lives,” he says. “When I take my suit off, I go on with my normal life.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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