Employee Social Media Policies – Just Say No

A few weeks ago, I talked about employee advocacy and yesterday I saw an article on socialmediatoday by Anita Loomba that echoed my thoughts.  The one thing that the article did, which I initially had some negative reaction to was the short shrift it gave to policies.  With all the hand wringing we have had over the last year around social media policies I thought it deserved a greater discussion.  And then I stopped myself.

If You Have an Employee Social Media Policy – Throw it Out!

With only one exception, every social media policy that has ever been reviewed has been found to be unlawful at least in part.  Leaving aside the legality of NLRB appointments (don’t expect any change there, folks), the reasons why this is so are myriad.  The easiest answer is that it is very hard to draft a policy that not only communicates effectively to your employees what your expectations are, but also protects your company.  If the lawyers at your company did the heavy lifting on your policy, chances are most employees will miss the point.  So, what is a company to do?

Get rid of your policy is what you should do.  I don’t say this lightly, though I have been saying it for a while.  Employment policies are not for the benefit of employees.  Let’s get that dirty little secret out there.  They are not meant to empower your employees and make them more effective.  They are meant as lines within which employees should color.  If the purpose of social media employee involvement is to empower them, why would you ever turn to a policy to do it.

That is not to say you shouldn’t have anything in place to communicate your expectations.  Or that you shouldn’t enforce your already existing policies concerning questionable conduct.  So let’s take the latter first.  Everything you are worried about an employee doing in social is contained within at least one other policy.  If it isn’t, the rest of your policies aren’t sufficient.  By the way, your other policies are probably unlawful given the recent decisions by the NLRB.  Do you have a provision about “being respectful?”  If you do, your policies are unlawful, absent some saving language (not savings clause, but specific language as to what you mean and what you don’t mean).

Guidelines, Principles, Pick Your Word and Go

Some companies have guidelines, some have principles, but it doesn’t matter what you call them.  It should be a clearly written document that communicates your expectations to your employees (provides a basis for the training that Anita’s article talks about first), but it should lack one thing, the threat of discipline/termination.  If you accept my premise that questionable conduct would be questionable no matter the transmission channel, than why do you need something specific to a channel.  Do you have a telephone policy?  A talking policy?

Do not tie this document to other policies.  If you do this, it will be considered to be a policy.  It should be stand-alone.  The document is not meant to protect your company.  It is meant to protect your employees and activate them.

Don’t Let The Lawyers Touch It

This document should be written by folks who are trained in employee communications and writing.  Lawyers are not trained for this type of writing, and the more your lawyers touch this document, the more it will start to sound like a policy, and the more it will stunt what you are trying to get to, authentic employee advocacy.

I have talked on more than a few occasions about engaging actual users for their feedback on various items and not relying on the misconception that you can put yourself in the shoes of your users.  That plays out here.  Get a group of employees together when you have a draft, or even before you have a draft, and talk to them about what their thoughts are.  What their concerns are, what has been holding them back from engaging in social about your company.

Things Your Guidelines Should Contain

There are a few things that this document should contain, not because your company needs them, but because your employees should.  Because there might be some liability that attaches to them.

  • Teach them about the difference between speaking on behalf of the company, and speaking about the company.  Remember the former are paid to do it, and the latter is everyone else.  I highly recommend using scenarios to lay this out so that the employee really understands what is acceptable and what is not
  • Discussion about disclosures.  Remember what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has said about endorsements and material connections.  You need to tell your employees what their obligations are here.  Don’t give them boilerplate language, give them the building blocks of a disclosure.  Exception – if you are going to track employee advocacy, using a tool like cmp.ly’s disclosure tool is a great way to not only help your employees satisfy their disclosure obligations, but also to provide metrics on it.

I had originally intended this post to be a sample employee social media policy, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that was bad advice.  Social media, at it’s most basic, is from the users, by the users, for the users.  I am sure that as Facebook and Twitter were in their infancies no one ever said anything about “how do we make this a tool for companies to spread the word.”  Following from that, your conversation with your employees about their social activities related to your brand should be about helping them do what they already are doing, or want to do.

If you want a sample social media guidelines, I might take some time this weekend to write one, but I would be violating one of my rules, wouldn’t I?  Tell me if you want to see one, though, and maybe I will write something up.  There are plenty of good examples out there, with Social Media Governance being a nice clearing house of many company’s existing documents.  Just remember that alot of those were written by lawyers, so let your writers take their red pen out and have some fun.

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