Speaking on the power of technology, Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post quoted "wise sage" Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am: "People used to consume media at home. Now, they consume media while riding on the back of a horse."

That information-on-demand environment is both the blessing and the curse of technology, particularly social media.

On the one hand, as Huffington told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management's national conference this summer, "Social media has the power to connect us like never before." And, she added, "it's become a new form of entertainment. Instead of going out or watching TV, people go on Twitter or update their Facebook status and check their friends' status."

On the other hand, the entertainment aspect of social media could be giving users a cavalier attitude about the information they post on social networks - an attitude that could prove extremely costly to employers, current research finds.

According to a recent study from Symantec Corp., the negative consequences from a social media misstep can cost a typical employer close to $4 million per year. For a 140-character message on Twitter, that's more than $28,000 per character - an eye-popping sum that will make HR/benefits professionals want to literally watch employees' Ps and Qs on social media sites.

In its 2011 Social Media Protection Flash Poll, Symantec examined how organizations protect themselves from negative consequences of using social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and other online forums. Although employers have been smacked down legally for monitoring employees' social media habits, benefits pros have good reason to worry about how employees are using social media tools. Symantec finds that the typical company experienced nine social media incidents over the last year - such as employees posting confidential information publicly - with 94% suffering negative consequences, including damage to their reputations, loss of customer trust, data loss and lost revenue.

And those incidents come with a high price tag, as Symantec calculates the average cost of:

* Reduced stock price, $1,038,401.

* Litigation costs, $650,361

* Direct financial costs, $641,993

* Damaged brand reputation/loss of customer trust, $638,496

* Lost revenue, $619,360

"Businesses know how important it is to protect and preserve email, instant messages, spreadsheets and other unstructured information. Now they need to recognize that information flowing through social networks is equally important," says Greg Muscarella, senior director of product management for Symantec's information management group.

Symantec finds 82% of employers at least are discussing solutions to collect, preserve and discover sensitive business information transmitted through social media, along with other measures, such as establishing social media usage policies and employee training programs. However, less than one-fourth have actually implemented any of those technologies and policies. "Employee education and training on the proper use of social media for business purposes is just as important as having the technology pieces in place," Muscarella says.

To help employers protect themselves, Symantec recommends:

* Defining how to use social media and training employees regarding appropriate content to post.

* Consider an archiving solution to capture and retain social media content and/or a data-loss prevention solution to prevent proprietary information from being exposed on social networks.

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