The evidence is beginning to pile up, and businesses — especially those in which maintaining trust with customers is fundamental — should take note. Use of social media by employees is pervasive, both on the job and off, and it’s crucial to ensure that your staff members are clear about the implications of their online conduct. Fooling around on Facebook can have severe consequences if employers are affected.

Certainly, the sheer newness of the area means that legal parameters are still very much in the emerging stage. But what seems clear so far is that there is a major misunderstanding in the meaning of “private.” That Facebook or blog post may be directed at a chosen few, but the reality is that offensive language has the potential to spread across the web — and it may do so in seconds.

In a case dealing with anti-management comments on Facebook, the firing of two employees has been upheld by the British Columbia Labour Relations Board. The postings had slagged a firm, its products (automotive parts) and its managers during a union drive. In making the ruling, the board had noted that the Facebook postings were “akin to comments made on the shop floor.”

Other decisions dealing with personal blogs give similar weight to offensive comments that could reflect badly on an employer. These include a case in which the blogger made racist and violent remarks, even though the employer was not the target. Although the employee was reinstated after apologizing, the arbitrator had noted: “There was a connection between the blogging and the business interests of the company.”

In another recent case in which an employee posted nasty remarks about an employer on Facebook, the arbitrator awarded compensation for the dismissal but noted that the posting employee should have known that there was the potential for “virtually worldwide access to those statements.”

What are the lessons from these cases for employers? In a recent note, lawyers Jennifer Bond and George Waggot of McMillan LLP offer some advice:

> All departments in a company need to be involved in drafting a social media policy, including IT, human resources, marketing and executives.

> Policies should be written in simple language and anticipate changing technology. They should extend to online use on the employee’s own time.

> Permitting social media use at work, with limits, can create some control over the inevitable.

> Inform employees of the legal and security risks inherent in social media use and warn about its potential to spread online.

> Clearly define what is “acceptable use” on and off the company’s networks. Include the consequences of non-compliance, including termination. IE