the ground rules: social media policy

This chapter has emphasised what a valuable business tool social media can be in any number of areas. But it is vital that an employer imposes some form of order on employees in an area which has precious little external regulation.

Some employers, for very good reasons, may wish to limit employees’ use of social media in the workplace while others, as we have seen, will want to exploit its business advantages to the full.

Whatever the approach, be it an outright ban, limited use or open access, it is essential employers protect themselves, their organisation and their employees by establishing a clear policy on use of social media in the workplace.

This may not be quite as straightforward as it first seems. For one thing, a traditional approach, with an approved communication manager regulating access to official communication channels, can be bypassed by using social networks.

There’s a view that social media require new rules to reflect their unmoderated status, or the whole area is simply beyond regulation. The continued rise of social media in its many forms has also blurred the boundary between ‘internal’ and ‘external’.

So for many, the emphasis is now on employee conduct rather than unenforceable prohibition.

But Institute of Employment Studies research highlighted difficulties some employers have faced in setting standards of behaviour for employees when using social media.

The report says employers should take a ‘common sense’ approach to influencing how employees behave online and advises organisations to simply treat behaviour online as they would treat any other behaviour in the workplace.

Employers must make a clear distinction between business and private use of social media. Where limited private use is permitted, employers should explain what this means and be clear about the limitations.

Social media expert Kate Rose succinctly sums up the purpose and scope of a social media policy. She says: “It’s relatively simple to define what you shouldn’t do on Twitter or Facebook – it pretty much boils down to good manners, the same professional standards you would apply in the office, and avoiding a handful of sensitive topics.”

She cites Zappos shoes, a highly successful online US brand, which has a seven-word long policy: “Be real, and use your best judgement.” Those who are less confident may appreciate a little more detailed guidance, she says, and many good corporate social media policies are no more than a page or so long.

Write it down

By clearly setting out its social media policy, an organisation can significantly reduce the risks of inappropriate or unlawful activity.

Recent history is littered with examples of people who have got into trouble by using social media to express views or make remarks they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face or in a public place.

A written social media policy makes it clear what employees can or cannot say about their employer, colleagues or about any aspect of its business. The policy should help employees understand the line between the different standards that may apply in their personal lives and at work.

And, importantly, a written policy could help give employers some defence against liability for breaches of the law for any inappropriate use, particularly in areas like discrimination, data protection or even health and safety.

Understanding limits

The policy should help an employee make the best, safe and legal use of social media. Employees should know what’s acceptable and where the limits are. A clear understanding of the rules and any disciplinary action that will be taken if the rules are broken will benefit everyone.

To keep pace with this rapidly evolving environment, the policy must be regularly reviewed and amended where appropriate.

And, of course, use social media to communicate the very latest policy update. They’re more likely to be read and acknowledged by those who need to be aware of the rules. Social media expert Euan Semple summed it up: “Use the tools to improve the tools.”

Clear guidelines

It is essential that employees have clear guidelines about what they can disclose about the organisation. Some encourage all employees to blog and tweet, provided they promote positive – or constructive – images of the organisation. Employers must advise employees about copyright, defamation, financial disclosure and other relevant regulations.

And employees need to be clear about how far they are allowed to offer their own opinions, balanced by employers’ awareness of the risks involved in using everyone’s voice to represent the organisation.

Put simply, employees must show responsibility, discipline and stay within the law.

Personal views and opinions have enormous power; they have the ring of truth that an official spokesman can never hope to achieve. Corporate spin rarely succeeds in social media or blogs. By using the voice of ‘ordinary’ employees, an organisation has a golden opportunity to engage an audience in an authentic and trustworthy way.

Social media in personal life

Some thought must be given to the difficult area of employees’ personal use of social media. For some companies, their social media policy covers this area and could well include clauses that say that while they’re not acting officially on behalf of the organisation, employees must be aware that they can affect the organisation if they are recognised as being an employee.

Employers must take a grown-up view and accept it is perfectly normal for employees to discuss their work on social media sometimes.

However, the social media policy could say that an employee’s online profile should – when discussing work – include a statement that says something like: “the views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer”.

There’s a whole host of areas that could bring the organisation into disrepute by association, and these should be outlined in the policy.

If all this seems daunting, particularly to an SME, there’s a huge amount of help and guidance online on exactly how a social media policy should look.

For example, the government’s Department of Communications lists a number of articles on its Digital business pages (www.digitalbusiness.gov.au) aimed specifically at helping small businesses take part in the digital economy and avoid pitfalls.


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