Have you heard? Twitter is the next BIG thing that employers somehow need to worry about — right after blogs and online social networking, of course.  Indeed, a headline not too long ago from the National Law Journal screamed: "Beware:  Your ‘Tweet’ on Twitter could be trouble".

But here’s the thing.  I’ve actually been using Twitter since late last year.  (You can find me on Twitter here or, if you’re already using Twitter, under the name  "@danielschwartz") And so far, I think the alarms that are being raised by some employment lawyers (particularly those who have never used the service) are overblown.  Twitter can, for example, be a great marketing device and a novel communications tool.

First, there’s a group of you out there that is probably wondering, "What the heck is Twitter"? Two sets of required reading are NYT Columnist David Pogue’s recent post explaining the service, and TwiTips’ 10 Tips for Beginners.  And for the other group who believes that Twitter is just for kids, even The Hartford Courant just started Twittering. And if you’re still wondering what the fuss is about, this terrific little video by Twitter’s co-founder explains how Twitter’s growth is being coming from unexpected uses of the service.

Next, I should clarify that I don’t disagree with the underlying premise that is advanced by some that posts on Twitter can get an employer into trouble. Of course that’s true.  But so can a letter to an editor in your local newspaper, or a notable call to a radio talk show or causing a scene at a presentation.

You don’t see advice that we ought to cut off mail service, or remove phones from employees’ offices, or stop allowing employees to attend seminars and presentations.  Rather, we outline a set of expectations as to what is proper business behavior and what is expected by the employer.

And yet, cutting off access to Twitter is exactly what some have suggested.  Such a blanket suggestion ignores the usefulness of this internet tool and is not consistent with the approach that companies use for other, more established forms of communication.  (Can you imagine a company now that required letters to be faxed instead of e-mailed?)

Underlying the suggestion of cutting of access issue is that somehow employees using Twitter will misbehave and expose the company if left to their own devices. The belief is that employees — if given access to Twitter — will disclose confidential information, bad-mouth competitors and be a lighting rod for lawsuits. 

Thus, some employers cut off access to Twitter as the easiest solution to address this concern.  But other employers can look to companies like Zappos that are using Twitter and taking a more dynamic and flexible approach that actually addresses an employee’s online conduct.

How so? By creating and implementing guidelines on model Internet behavior.  What types of standards should an employer consider?  Not surprisingly, the same standards that we use for other online conduct.

Indeed, in 2007, I wrote about "The blog post I didn’t publish".  In that post, I outlined some suggestions for an employee blog use policy, many of which remain equally applicable to the use of Twitter. Some are:

  • Employees can be instructed that they should not comment or use any confidential information about the company or discuss internal matters. (Whether the employee should be allowed to identify the employer is a business decision for the company.)
  • Employees can be told that Twitter should be done during non-working hours and not using Company resources.  Of course, many employers may want to authorize the use during working hoursto advance a legitimate business purpose (such as marketing).
  • Employees can be instructed that their "Tweets" should not be libelous or defamatory, and should avoid being written in a way in which it could be construed as harassing or discriminatory on the basis of a protected category.

I am not suggesting a one-size fits all approach for employers. Some employers may simply choose to cut off access, while others may choose to give their employees unfettered access to Twitter.  But for employers looking for a compromise, consider focusing on the root issue (ensuring proper online behavior and communication) rather than on one service or another.

Because before you know it, there’ll be another trend or service to take Twitter’s place and we’ll be having this discussion again in another 12-18 months.