[This post first appeared in Vol. 11, No. 5 (2010) of Enterprising Women]
Social networking is like superhero powers: it can be a force for good, or a force for ill. It depends on the user. Used wisely, it can be a great boon for your business. Used poorly, it’s a public relations nightmare. When it comes to using social networking responsibly, can you trust your employees to make the right decisions? When information can circulate the globe with the click of a mouse, do you really want to leave that to chance? If not, you’ll want the guidance that a social networking policy can provide.
Social networking brings in another aspect to dealing with employees: a concern about their “after-hours” activities. Employees can update their Facebook pages just as easily from 9am-5pm as they can from 5pm-9am (in fact, the later hours are more likely). With BlackBerries, iPhones, and other mobile devices, your employees are no longer tethered to the desktop computer to play in the wide world of Web 2.0.
Whether your policy goes into excruciating detail depends on the maturity (in sensibility, not age) of your workforce. As social networking is so new, and your employees may come from different backgrounds, they may not share a common sense of propriety or etiquette. For some companies, simply telling them to “do the right thing” is enough. Others may need to spell out that tagging the company logo in a photo where they’re smoking pot on a beach in the middle of a workday is not acceptable. At a minimum, though, a social networking/social media policy should include the following three elements:
1. Employees should think before they speak (or type). Whether it’s a cultural issue (or you’ve hired someone who’s simply oblivious to business sensitivities), it helps to remind employees to “watch their language” and “play nice with others.” Like the rules of the sandbox, you don’t call people nasty names, throw sand in other people’s faces, or steal their pail and shovel. This mirrors the offline world’s expectations (and laws) about not using vulgar or obscene language or images, refraining from harassing conduct, not creating a hostile environment, and other prohibited workplace conduct. Whatever employees post online becomes public . . . and very difficult to make “disappear” if it’s ugly. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” might be a good place to start.
2. Employees should stand behind their words and actions. If you blog it, “own” (up to) it. A social networking policy needs to let employees know your company will hold them legally liable for what they post online, especially if it could negatively affect your company. Their online “trash talk” could open your company up to lawsuits from others who might object to the content—like co-workers and competitors. Whether it would be a valid lawsuit is irrelevant: the last thing you need is to waste time and money embroiled in it. Cisco Systems found this out the hard way: a 2007 blogpost by an employee (in-house counsel, no less!—whom you’d think would have known better) landed them in litigation for 2½ years before the case settled. Employees should also be encouraged to be “transparent,” that is, identify whether they are speaking for themselves or on your company’s behalf.
3. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” My mother liked to say that—about all sorts of things. Just as they should in the off-line world, employees need to respect the confidentiality and proprietary nature of your company’s information and intellectual property, and that of your clients. Social media policies should address unauthorized uses of copyrighted material, trademarks, and divulging confidential business plans, financial projections, and the like. Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s free to take and use however you please.
The aim of most social media policies: to ensure that you and your employees share a definition of “accountability” . . . which brings us back to the original question. If you can trust your workforce to make mature, thoughtful choices when engaging in social media, you may not really need an abundance of social media “rules.” And if you can’t trust them, you have to wonder if you’ve hired the right workforce.