Biz 101: Does your company have social media use guidelines? Maybe it should…

With the proliferation of social networking, both during work and personal time, a company needs to take a look at what its employees are doing and saying -- and guidelines could be in order. SNEWS talks to experts and offers a sample policy.
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While social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr have become accepted parts of day-to-day interactions, experts suggest the social interplay of your employees on these sites may need some oversight.

Without company rules to live by when it comes to these means of instant communication, your company, its reputation or its product’s image could be damaged, whether intended or not.

“With the advent of the Internet, many companies struggled with how to manage employees at the workplace,” said Steve Gutierrez, a partner with Holland & Hart LLP legal firm and chair of the firm’s labor and employment practice group.

But as quickly as companies got the hang of what to do about employees emailing with friends or shopping when they are bored, technology advanced and left any rules in the dust. Soon there was IM, chat rooms, blogs and a plethora of social media websites where employees could hang out, post opinions, find friends, search for fans, chime in on discussions and send photos -- all potentially reflecting on a company’s brand or reputation.

In the sports industries, laissez-faire may seem the way to go, but, Gutierrez explained, “Sometimes employees say things about their employers, co-workers or vendors.

“Companies were caught flat-footed with the quickly advancing technology, pointing to an incident where an airline attendant dressed in uniform said derogatory things about the company on a MySpace video. And we all remember the firestorm when a couple of employees of a pizza chain did a goofy video of one of them making a pizza in an unsanitary way -- and, after posting it, it quickly spread globally virally.

“You are responsible for your employees,” he said, whether it’s a car accident on company time, sending a defamatory email about a coworker during the workday, or posting a Facebook comment slamming something at work -- or just doing something that was intended to be fun without putting on a thinking cap first.

Of course, employees don’t necessarily want their boss poking a nose into their social network, a recent study showed. In the latest Deloitte LLP Ethics & Workplace survey, six of 10 business executives said they have a right to know what their employees are saying and doing online, but 53 percent of employees said their bosses had no right to monitor or know anything about their online activities. Even more of those who were 18 to 34 wanted employers to stay out of their online business -- 63 percent.

Still, despite putting up a “no trespassing” sign, employees did seem to understand the damage they could do. In the study, nearly three of four (74 percent) said social networks “made it easy” to damage a company’s reputation -- or worse.

Negligent supervision

For Gutierrez, the legal term is “negligent supervision.” A company could claim it isn’t responsible for personal conduct but the courts may not agree, he said, if somebody does “unreasonable harm” to another.

And what about damage to your brand? A stupid video or sarcastic comment on what is considered a public platform could spread like wildfire, leaving a company open to potential liability or just simply huge revenue and customer losses.

“Because of this, you need to do something to regulate employee conduct,” Gutierrez said. 

Denise Lee Yohn, a branding consultant (www.deniseleeyohn.com), pointed out that companies should be less on the defensive in establishing guidelines than they should be on the offensive.

“Since employees are already using social media and networking,” she said, “why not inspire and instruct them how to generate excitement and interest in the brand with these new tools?”

Gutierrez has begun to do workshops for Holland & Hart (www.hollandhart.com) on how a company should develop guidelines and what should be in them. But, he said, in the last six months interest has grown strongly as social media and its impact has become “a hot topic.”

A CareerBuilder (www.careerbuilder.com) survey from late 2009, found that companies weren’t blind to the need for guidelines. In fact, 37 percent of employers have a policy about such communication and 17 percent had implemented stricter policies in the last year.

What rules could say

What kind of guidelines to implement, of course, becomes more complicated if your company is actively involved in social communication means. But a few ground rules for employees apply, which Gutierrez has laid out in a sample policy.

>> Protect your own privacy, and always pause and think before posting – Be mindful that what you say may be public for a very long time.

>> Distinguish your own views and opinions from those of the company – Make it clear by writing in the first person that you are communicating as you and you are not representing your company. Managers must also assume that employees will read what they may post.

>> Post meaningful, respectful comments – No ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity or otherwise inappropriate conduct. Even if intended in jest, offensive communication should be strictly prohibited. Employees must also be reminded any comments they post will reflect on the brand.

>> Respect proprietary information, content and confidentiality – Asking permission to say certain things may be needed.

>> When disagreeing with others’ opinions, keep it appropriate and polite – No rumors about competitors, picking-fights, no settling scores.

>> Respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws – Law may vary between where you work and where you live.

Yohn adds a few additional insights, such as helping employees know how to talk about the brand, discussing details about how to communicate a brand personality, and teaching how to foster relationships with people.

The CareerBuilder survey found that 21 percent of companies prohibit employees from communicating about the company online, 13 percent have designated employees to post on behalf of a company, and 16 percent monitor social networking profiles of employees. Twenty percent have fired somebody for using the Internet for non-work-related activities during the work day.

Of course, maybe your employees don’t need guidelines beyond one suggested by a human resources specialist: “Be mature, be ethical, and think before you type.” 

For a more detailed version of sample corporate guidelines, click here to download a version made available to SNEWS readers from Holland & Hart.

--Therese Iknoian

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