Social Media policies, just say no! That has been a recurring theme in these parts. There are very real concerns and risks with employees engaging on social media when they talk about the company they work for. I do not discount that or minimize that. The problem is that policies are not the way to do that , in my mind. A policy is all about negative control. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. In the era of engagement and empowerment, a policy (even the most well crafted one) runs against everything this new age is about.
There are more concrete reasons why I think a policy is the wrong thing to do:
- The NLRB has made it exceedingly hard to draft one that passes muster, in part or in whole. Even when your social media policy is not the focus of an investigation, it may still get looked at. Why even court this scrutiny?
- Everything you seek to prevent through your policy is already being prevented in other policies. Confidential Information? If you don’t have some policy about protecting that, you are already in trouble. Speaking on behalf of your company? I bet you have a publicity clause somewhere in your employee handbook.
- Policies are about termination evidence. Ask yourself honestly if you are going to terminate someone for something that occurs only in social media that doesn’t implicate any other policy. After you spend some time working that through in your head come back here and look at a different way to do this.
- The one exception may be disclosure/endorsement guidelines. But craft a realistic scenario where an employee does the wrong thing here and causes grave harm. A single employee, I mean. If you have many, many employees not disclosing properly to the point that the FTC steps in, you have a bigger problem than terminating an employee.
I think the answer are guidelines and expectations with regards to employee social media activity. Guidelines is probably a bad word too. Principles might work. I would have some saving language in there that distances this document from your true employment policies.
These are very general thoughts about what it should look like. Your company may require some different things, or your industry may require very formal rules. FINRA firms, I’m looking at you. That being said, since you aren’t going to discipline anyone based on these guidelines, perhaps just addressing these things will be enough.
Remember that the core problems posed by social media are nothing new. The telegraph made it easier to send information along the wire. The phone then made it even easier. While the friction decreased, the things you are protecting are not. Your proprietary information and your reputation are the things that you have always been worried about. Since the appearance of the employer-employee relationship we have developed ways of doing it. Apply those ways now and stop trying to think your problems are so different.
1. Acknowledge and accept the reality of social media, and define it
This is your introduction into the meat. It communicates the space you are talking about. It also lays out for your folks what you are not talking about. While I think social media guidelines are great thoughts about employee speech in all areas, don’t try to be over-expansive. You will sound like Big Brother from 1984.
I am not a classically trained writer, but I believe you need to give some sort of potential payoff to the reader here. You need to get them to read the rest of the document.
2. Communicate the purpose
If you agree with me that the purpose of this document is to help your employees protect themselves, this is where you tell them that. A quick statement about the risks they face speaking in this space may be enough. More than that and you start sounding like a policy.
3. Tell them what they can do
I find it useful to break employee speech down on ‘about’ and ‘for’ lines. Allowing speech about the brand, but controlling speech for the brand gives your employees latitude to do what is natural for them. Engaged employees want to talk about your company, whether it be over the checkout line at the supermarket or on their Facebook wall.
That last sentence is the reason why I feel the way I do about employee social media policies. Your employees have been doing all of this already. The only thing social media changed is your ability to print it out and use it as a hammer. To be fair, it has also reduced the friction by which your employees share things you don’t want them to share. Let’s be honest here, as we are among friends. If you are now worried about your employee saying something questionable on Facebook today, you should have been worried about them saying the same darn thing twenty years ago on the phone. Stop treating this space so differently, like it should have new rules.
4. Disclosure and Endorsement
This is the only ‘legal’ part of your guidelines. You need to inform your employees about how to convey their ‘about’ speech. This is the ‘I work for the company that makes the widget that I like so much’ part of the discussion. There is personal liability to them if they do not, but there is also corporate liability if you don’t have this type of statement somewhere.
5. What they should expect from you
Here is where you need a good writer to come in. This is where you tell them that this is not a policy and does not carry with it disciplinary possibilities. Though you also tell them that their conduct is governed by all the other things you have in place. Highlighting things like protecting intellectual property (yours and others), and promoting a healthy workplace.
6. Provide a resources section
Give them links to places where they can learn more about social. Maybe even links to pages where they can sign up for their own accounts. Also give contact information for people they can talk to about it. Perhaps even a regular user group meeting where people can talk about real-world questions. Supporting your employees here leads to a bonus section –
7. Bonus – Use the Technology, Staff Up and Strap In
You need to have a group of folks standing by to manage questions and comments. Use social technologies to build out a platform where this conversation can occur easily. I think this helps with the staffing problem as well. If you build that community right, I think you will be able to support even a large employee base of highly engaged employees with very little staff.
When I say strap in I mean that what happens will surprise and delight you almost every day. Sometimes those surprises will not be pleasant. Learn your lessons, course-correct your employees and weather the storm. Don’t try to control, guide. The more you try to control the more you will not be able to.