Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Terminated CFO illustrates the confidentiality risks social media pose

According to a recent survey by Intel (h/t: Lifehacker), 85% of American adults share information about themselves online, while 90% think others are sharing too much. Maybe the former CFO of Francesca’s Holdings Corp., Gene Morphis, should have heeded the latter and shared less about his company’s inner workings.

On Monday, Francesca’s announced that it fired Morphis for improperly communicating company information through social media. A quick review of Morphis’s Twitter feed and (very public) Facebook Wall offers some possible suspects.

Maybe it was this tweet:

Dinner w/Board tonite. Used to be fun. Now one must be on guard every second.

Or maybe it was this one:

Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board.

Or maybe this one:

Earnings released. Conference call completed. How do you like me now Mr. Shortie?

Or, maybe it was this Facebook post:

Audit Committee. Damn you Paul Sarbanes! Damn you Michael Oxley!

Or, maybe it was this one:

Roadshow completed. Sold $275 million of secondary shares. Earned my pay this week.

Social media presents a real risk of corporate breaches of confidentiality. It is easy to tell your employees, “Think before you click.” (Hey, that’s a catchy title for a book.) Yet, 76% of the Inc. 500 lack a social media policy for their employees, and 73% of all employers conduct no social media training. If you aren’t educating your employees about the risks and benefits of social media, both in and out of the workplace, you are not only missing a golden opportunity, but you also leaving yourself exposed to breaches of confidentiality such as that which befell Francesca’s. These issues are not going away.

Businesses that ignore the possibility that their employees can divulge trade secrets and other confidential and proprietary information via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media do so at their own peril. Did Morphis’s disclosure harm his ex-employer? Probably not. But, the company’s swift and decisive reaction to any breach of confidentiality will make it easier down the road for it to protect its confidential information when it really matters. Mark my words. The day will come when a court will invalidate a corporate trade secret because of a lax social media policy.

As an aside, I’m leading off tomorrow’s NLRB Region 8 Labor Law Conference [pdf], discussing social media policies and protected concerted activity. NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon is the lunch speaker. I am very interested to hear his thoughts on how employers can balance their right to limit disclosures of confidential information against his perception that social media policies that prohibit such disclosures violate the NLRA.