These days any organisation needs to have a social media policy in place. This needs to cover:
- When social media sites can be used (different for personal amusement, personal PR, and continuous professional development purposes)
- How people need to talk about their employer and their colleagues
- What their employer may do with respect to their use of social media (there are privacy issues to consider here)
I’m certainly not a lawyer but I have worked with social media for quite a few years and over the time I have picked up a few ideas about what works and what can go wrong. So I have listed out below what I feel are the main issues with examples in italics of how I have addressed them in the past. (But as I say I am not a lawyer so if you want to use any of the wording I would have it checked out first!)
Introducing the social media policy guidelines
First of all you will need to explain the purpose and scope of any guidelines you are putting in place. Something along the lines of:
These guidelines are intended to help you manage your use of social media in respect of your work life.
Social media are online public spaces where you can share information with friends, colleagues and strangers. These spaces can be principally for social purposes such as Facebook, for business purposes such as LinkedIn, or for both such as Twitter. In addition there are numerous discussion forums in media owner and retailer websites where you can debate industry issues or review products and services.
Next I think you need to explain that there are laws that apply to the use of social media. I don’t think this needs to be complicated: just to remind people that they can’t libel people or steal intellectual property:
Remember that legally you are personally responsible for anything you say online. Just because you are on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t mean you can say anything illegal or libelous. You should also be careful not to breach copyright or infringe trademarks when posting to social media sites.
When can you use social media?
The next thing I would address is when people can use social media, and for how long. Of course this is totally up to you but I feel that it shouldn’t be a sackable offence to pop onto Facebook now and then, so long as the use is reasonable (after all most people are allowed to make a cup of tea a few times during the working day and this is little different.)
With respect to personal use:
Within the working day, please limit your use of social media websites to one or two 5 minute sessions, unless your use has some relevance to your work. Of course you can use social media for the whole of your lunch break should you choose.
And with respect to professional use:
If your profile on business social sites like LinkedIn, Twitter etc shows us as your current employer and you link to our website on your profile, you can update your personal pages (e.g. upload presentations and whitepapers you have written), or search for contacts, whenever you want, so long as this doesn’t impact on your main job performance.
You can use Twitter to tell people about new documents on our website or other relevant business links that you feel colleagues and peers in other companies will find useful, whenever you want, so long as this doesn’t impact on your main job performance.
Please do not set up Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter etc pages that appear to be “official” company pages. You should not represent your personal opinion as being the formal position of your company and in the same way you should not create social media pages or accounts that might be mistaken for official company pages or accounts.
sIf you decide you are going to monitor which websites people use at work (and plenty of companies do this), I believe it is only polite and good management, to inform people of this and let them know if certain types of site are deemed inappropriate for use in the office.
Talking about the company and colleagues
I would then begin to outline the guidelines, starting with how they should talk about the company and their colleagues:
If you mention our company or our industry in any social media please do use your common sense about what is appropriate and what isn’t. The first question you should ask yourself when posting anything online is “Would my boss be happy to read this?”
However strongly you feel, it will never be appropriate to post in a public space defamatory or uncomplimentary comments about the company, your colleagues and peers, suppliers and clients, even if you are only joking. If in doubt, ask your line manager. Never post if you are angry about something. [That last is really important. I would add “drunk” as well but that might give the wrong impression of people I have worked with in the past!]
Never use a company social media account to post anything of a personal nature – unless it has some positive relevance to the company (for instance you have just completed a fun run that the company has sponsored). [Again this is really important to emphasise, especially to younger colleagues who may use social media a lot and who can sometimes forget they are not on their private Facebook account.]
Respect your colleagues. Don’t post to your personal web pages inappropriate pictures of work colleagues at company or industry sponsored events. This includes any content that would show up your colleagues or company in an uncomplimentary light. A useful question to ask here is “Would my (or their) mother be happy to see this?”
Ensure you protect the privacy of colleagues and peers and don’t gossip about them in a public space unless you have their permission.
Always remember that it is easy to misinterpret comments about people so take care when joking about colleagues and peers and be sensitive to people’s feelings.
Sometimes people have tripped up over financial disclosure so a word about that is useful (and don’t assume the FD has this top of mind either.)
Remember there are special rules about disclosing financial information. Remember that you don’t need to include financial details to break the rules: saying something as simple as “the company is doing really well” could get you into trouble. If in doubt, ask.
Talking about clients
It is also important to take special care that colleagues don’t upset clients or other stakeholders:
Never talk about clients or work you have done for a client without getting the OK from your line manager first. Never reveal confidential information about the company, our suppliers, our clients or anyone we have an NDA with in a public space.
Sometimes people will be engaging is discussion about your industry. They might be doing that for “personal PR” reasons, which I would encourage a reasonable amount of, or to learn about something. Unless they are authorised though you probably don’t want them representing their opinions as the company’s and it is important to help them understand how to manage this:
By all means blog, contribute to online discussion groups, tweet or post documents on websites about industry issues. However, be very careful to avoid making it seem as if your comments are officially held by the company. Your blog is your opinion, and not that of the company and you should make this clear.
Taking part in discussions
It is one thing posting content; it’s another to enter into discussions, especially with people who, unbeknown to you, might be prospects (or potential employees). So helping people to understand how to engage with other people is useful:
When participating in public online discussions display a professional demeanour at all times. Never display contempt about what other people say. Never be rude to or dismissive of other participants.
Before you contribute any comments, make sure you get your facts straight. It won’t help anyone if you make yourself look stupid by writing something that is obviously untrue! If in doubt, check with someone else.
Not everyone will want to engage with you in debate publicly. So enable people to reply to your postings privately via email.
If you see our company or a colleague being misrepresented, use facts rather than opinion to defend them; alternatively do not respond and inform your line manager instead.
If you are angry about something do not respond online. Wait until you have calmed down! Think twice before you post any response.
Do not impersonate colleagues or anyone connected with your company when online.
Social media at home
And finally I think it is as well to address behaviour on personal accounts when employees out of the office: over the years many people have found themselves in trouble for making comments about their company or colleagues on private accounts, on the assumption that, when they are not at work, they can say what they like.
Remember that, even if you are at home, the rules of politeness and the laws of libel still apply! So take care not to upset work mates or damage your company with ill advised comments, even if they seem funny at the time. They might not seem so funny next time you meet your colleagues!
A lot of people feel that what people do on social media is their own concern. They feel that the “virtual” world is somehow distinct from the real world and that the same rules don’t apply. Guidelines on social media use are therefore sometimes seen as over-bearing and unnecessary.
But it is much easier to prevent “accidents” than to clear up after them. And even experienced people can do remarkably silly things when using social media. So providing clear guidelines that help people understand how what they do and say online can impact on their company, their colleagues and their career prospects seems to me to be caring rather than draconian.
If you would like to know more about managing how your employees use social media then drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 07855 341 589.