Businesses are on high alert for issues related to their brands online and they need to be. Reputations take years to build and just minutes to destroy.
The potential damage to an organization’s reputation from customers or irresponsible employees can be incredibly costly. Take for example, the publicist who tweeted a joke about getting AIDS before takeoff on a flight to Africa, the comedian who tweeted jokes about the tsunami in Japan, or the extra on TV show “Glee” who tweeted spoilers.
The prevalence and accessibility of social media mean companies have more channels than ever in which they need to vigilantly guard their brand. It’s a space where employees can be your biggest advocates and major threats.
Susan Keith, Director of HR for AccessPoint, consults with clients on developing a social media policy for their workforce. She offers answers to some of the most frequently asked questions employers have.
Q: Do you recommend that your clients develop a social media policy for their employees?
A: I would; it puts together some parameters regarding social media because it’s so prevalent in all aspects of our lives. I think it’s also good to establish some general provisions around how we use social media.
Q: What are some essential items that should be considered when creating a standard social media policy?
A: There are a few things to consider. First, while it’s great that employees have access to social media, blogging, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. in their personal lives, it should not be done on company time unless their job involves posting on behalf of the company. We view social media as more of a personal activity rather than a business activity unless it’s part of that employee’s job description.
Regarding representation, include a provision that says employees do not speak on the company’s behalf unless it’s included in their job description to do so. Employees still always represent their company’s brand, even if they are posting on their personal page(s), so they should be mindful. However, it is important to state that the company does not associate with any negative remarks or comments, especially those that indicate slanderous, racist, or even illegal sentiments or activities. Making sure to separate the company’s name from such statements that go against the core principles of the brand is very important.
It’s important to note that regardless of what an employee is posting (work or personal), they are required to protect the privacy of the company. Things like customer lists and confidential information should not be shared via public mediums. Specific personnel information, inventions, and intellectual properties should not be posted on a public domain unless they have been instructed to do so.
Q: For employees that use social media as a part of their work (i.e. client outreach interaction), should a company enact a special set of rules to guide the way these employees act online?
A: Yes. I would say that if it is a part of an employee’s job to post on social media, they should be given parameters either in a separate policy or as part of their job description to indicate what is appropriate or not appropriate for that individual’s position.
The handbook policies are more general in their set of guidelines, so saying things like “this is how we want our logo to look” or “this is how we need to be portrayed online” would be more specific to individual job duties and therefore need to be defined.
Q: In your experience, is there a best practice to monitor employees across social media channels?
A: That’s an interesting dilemma. While we have these general guidelines about social media, your personal account is your personal account. Employers aren’t really allowed to interfere with an employee’s right to post whatever they want on social media!
Employers certainly have a right to monitor activity, but I haven’t had experience with most companies actually “monitoring” their employees’ personal social media activity that closely.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, their free speech is protected online; people can post whatever they want, unless what their post(s) directly violate the policy. If I were to say that my boss is the worst boss I’ve ever had- I have a right to do that because that’s protected speech under the NLRA. We generally don’t recommend that our clients monitor personal activity, unless it’s monitoring the activity directly associated with their job (assuming it is included within the parameters of their job description).
Q: What are your views on managers being friends online with the individuals they are supervising?
A: Every HR professional will have different views on this topic. In general, we would recommend all employees maintain a professional presence in all aspects of online activity, whether it’s on a personal account or a company account.
If you have professional relationships, many people wouldn’t mind (being friends online), but when it gets into situations that are not necessarily professional, things can get kind of sticky in terms of how your supervisor or coworkers may think of you at work. This isn’t to say that being friends with your employees is prohibited in any way – we just recommend that our clients advise their employees to be aware of what they post.
Do we recommend mentioning this in your social media policy? No. Am I Facebook friends with people at work? Yes. It can kind of be a double-edged sword, so again we’d just recommend that employees be mindful of how they are presenting themselves with the best image they can. But ultimately it all boils down to personal preference.
Q: Have you been involved in the termination of an employee for their behavior on social media?
A: Many of the negative activities that I have been involved with concerning social media were cases where individuals had expressed their opinion about their boss or company, but we couldn’t interfere because that was their (protected) right to do so. However, our team has had experiences with those that had posted confidential information online, in which cases were subject to immediate disciplinary action, if not termination due to a violation of policy.
Q: What does that disciplinary process generally look like?
A: Normally it would begin with a review of the company policy (hopefully they have one in place). If an employee violates the policy, we normally recommend verbal counseling with the employee to review the extent of their actions and how they infringed on the policy and act from there.
Typically, more benign offenses would start and end with verbal counseling. However, for something more malicious, the punishment would obviously be more severe. For example, if an employee released a client list (or other confidential information) to the public online, that is generally considered a terminable offense. Otherwise, it would normally be resolved with a write-up or verbal counsel session depending on the contents of the violation.
Q: Would you recommend constantly updating a company’s social media policy?
A: Yes. We have a standard handbook that was approved by our legal department which we distribute to all our clients. If there are significant courtroom cases or events linked to social media laws or regulation, we always review our policy to remain compliant with the courts and the National Labor Relations Act. Otherwise, we would check-in every 1 or 2 years and update as needed.
Q: Do laws vary by different states on social media policies?
A: No state regulations, just the laws and guidelines established by the NLRA that guides social media.
Like it or not, social media a part of most people’s everyday lives, our employees included. Having guidelines in place is the first step in protecting your brand. By developing a policy and educating employees on expectations and consequences of violating the policy, employers can avoid serious hits to their reputation.