Suppose you have an employee making controversial statements on his or her Facebook page that could reflect poorly on your company’s brand? Suppose he or she were using profanity, or saying things that were overtly racist or otherwise potentially embarrassing to the company? But the employee isn’t mentioning the company in the posts and doesn’t list an employer. Do you have a basis for disciplining that employee?
But suppose that same employee had organized a public social media page for other employees, on which that employee and others openly griped about the company, its management, working conditions, and everything else that was wrong with it? Surely that’s a slam-dunk case for disciplining the employee, right?
Not so fast.
In that case, disciplining that employee could land you on the wrong side of federal law, and expose your company to union busting charges.
That’s why it’s critical for companies to develop a well thought out policy concerning the use and monitoring of social media accounts. But according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about 40 percent of companies have developed a formal written social media policy.
It’s time to get with the program. These are real issues, and there are things employers need to stay on top of. Here are several points of consideration when it comes to crafting your company social media policy.
- Be aware of union-busting laws. You don’t have to put up with general-purpose loutish or unprofessional content on employee social media websites if it genuinely hurts your company’s reputation and there’s no labor-organizing component. But the National Labor Relations Act also restricts you from disciplining employees for the act of communication and engaging in ‘concerted activities’ for the purpose of mutual aid and protection (29 U.S.C. Section 157). In recent years, the courts and the National Labor Relations Board have ruled that this applies to employees using social media pages to communicate and commiserate! Note: Some of them are HR employees, no doubt!
- You don’t have to put up with unprofessional online behavior. Specifically reserve the right to terminate employees for unprofessional or embarrassing content that’s directly related to work. One commonly-cited example involved fast food workers posting images and video of themselves wiping the floor with hamburger buns or licking food in the kitchen.
- Centralize control of messaging and communications. For example, ensure that there is only one official source of communication and information for your company and that your communications team vets all information that goes to the press. You don’t want dozens of employees discussing company business over different social media accounts and contradicting each other, and you should have a single point of contact for the press.
- Defend your intellectual property. Specifically reserve the right to discipline employees for releasing trade secrets and other confidential or sensitive information via social media.
- Address employee use of social media during work hours, not just from company computers, but also from personal devices as well. If you don’t have a policy covering social media use “on the clock,” it’s tough to discipline employees if you have no policy in place, and you have management enforcing a made-up policy on an ad hoc basis. However, trying to ban access completely, even on personal devices, is no longer workable in most contexts.
- Apply internal policies and guidance to online communications. Do you have internal policies on harassment, discrimination, intimidation and fraternization? Ensure your employees know that these policies extend to social media usage, as well. For example, if your company is the target of a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in hiring, promotion or retention? That’s going to be a tough suit to defend against when opposing counsel produces screen grabs of company personnel posting racist or bigoted language on white supremacist social media pages.
- Deputize employees to be online “scouts” for the company. Encourage them in writing to direct any social media mentions, positive or negative, to company management or your communications staff. This will give your organization the opportunity to address them directly.
- Involve junior staff in creating your social media policy. You’ll have better compliance when you have ‘rank and file’ buy-in. Furthermore, your younger employees are likely going to be more attuned to the latest in social media platforms and technologies than your Gen-Xers and baby boomers in management. Getting the input of your younger staffers will help you address ‘blind spots’ in your social media policy.
- Equip employees with positive messages about your company. Too often, employers address social media policies with a compliance-minded attitude of fear, negativity and defensiveness. But your employees can also be effective ambassadors online as well, if you channel their efforts appropriately and provide them with effective and consistent messaging.
- Follow up with training. Simply putting some social media rules in the employee handbook and forgetting about it is not sufficient to protect your company’s interests. Conduct a social media workshop. In doing so, you’ll get valuable feedback from your employees, as well.
All in all, your company leadership should be working closely with your legal team to develop your social media policy. Don’t let the legal guys run away with the process, though. They tend to overemphasize the compliance end and if you let them do everything they’ll try to prohibit every employee use of communications technology since the smoke signal. The social media policy should be a combined effort between human resources professionals, communications professionals and the company leadership
Need a jumpstart? Here’s a handy online social media policy generator to get the ball rolling. However, reading it over, it’s clearly just a generic starting point. It’s up to you to exercise your professional judgment to apply it to your particular industry, business model, setting and people.