Yesterday, The New York Times — about a gazillion years after this blog and other employment law blogs talked about it ad nauseum — wrote their definitive piece entitled on how “federal regulators” are “ordering employers to scale back policies that limit what employees can say online.”

The headline?  “Even If It Enrages Your Boss, Social Net Speech Is Protected.”

Are you scared yet? Hopefully not, because if you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that such pronouncements are misguided and overblown.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t review your policies to make sure that they are appropriately tailored. And that’s not to say that you shouldn’t exercise caution before firing an employee who just said something about someone at work on Facebook. 

But, it is far past the time when we should treat each pronouncement or each article on social media as this huge development that requires employers to change everything time and again.

Social media — like the telephone, fax machine or e-mail before it — is now just another communications tool that is here to stay in one form or another.   If you don’t get it yet or look at those who use it with disdain, you’re simply missing out on a tool that can be useful to your employees and to you.   The one billion people who use Facebook aren’t suddenly going to wake up tomorrow and decide that its not useful.    

Let me give you a real-world example outside the workplace and how I’m convinced that social media is for everyone now.

As I’ve alluded to on this blog, my mother in law fell ill in late last year.  She was far from her home and she had many friends that wanted to keep up with her. 

On the first day, I must have made well over two dozen phone calls to family and her friends. That was not realistic to do on a daily basis. 

So we created a CaringBridge site to allow friends and family to follow along.   CaringBridge describes itself as “an online space where you can connect, share news, and receive support. It’s your very own health social network, coming together on your personalized website.”   

And here’s the best part: All of her friends — including many people in their 60s, 70s and 80s — logged on. Nearly every day.  So much so, that in just 6 weeks or so, we had nearly 10,000 visits to my mother in law’s CaringBridge page.  We had nearly 800 “guestbook” comments — essentially short messages that the family could read that we words of comfort and support. 

After she passed away last week, I’ve heard from people — many of who aren’t necessarily on Facebook — who thanked me for creating the site.  It allowed them to connect with the friend and know what was going on.  All they wanted during the process was accurate information and a way to connect; social media gave that to them.

Social media is not one-size-fits-all. Those in regulated industries will need to exercise care. But for employers, social media remains a wonderful tool for your employees to use at times and for you to connect with your employees. 

Ignore the scary headlines and be pragmatic. Learn the facts about social media and you’ll be in good shape to start using its benefits while minimizing the risks.