You don’t have to look too far to hear social media horror stories – employees taking things too far online (either willfully or inadvertently) and causing damage to their companies’ reputations, or from employers who confess social media use at work is creating huge challenges with focus and productivity. It’s becoming a significant HR issue for many reasons, but it’s also hard to get a handle on. This was impressed upon me when I delivered a workshop on this topic at the Victoria’s popular Social Media Camp in May of this year. While there were over 500 attendees, I assumed policy would not be a particularly interesting topic, and anticipated a handful of people at the workshop. To my surprise, the room was full and close to 50 people were eager to hear more on the subject.

From the workshop participants, it was clear that employers don’t want to spend hours policing their employees’ social media use, but they also don’t want to end up on the wrong side of a bad decision that leaves them vulnerable or at risk because of a careless online post, or struggle with poor productivity because of misuse of social media at work. Fortunately, employers can minimize their risk and ensure that their employees know and understand expectations around social media use.

Aliah Wright, author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn…and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites, says “Any company, big or small, needs a social media policy to protect their reputations. Even if their company has no social media presence, their employees may be creating one by virtue of their actions online.”

Social media mishaps by employees can have a very real impact on business. It can positively impact reputation, brand, and visibility, resulting in business sales and growth. But it can equally have negative impacts on those same things. A social media policy is a good place to start.

A policy is not guaranteed to prevent all misuses of social media any more than speed limits prevent everyone from speeding, but it will ensure that no one is able to say they didn’t know or understand what was expected of them. If they don’t comply with company policy, it can be treated as a performance issue.

How complex and strict your policy is will depend on how “at risk” your business is (i.e. a company handling patient records or highly confidential legal information may be more at risk than a small company providing a local service). It will also depend on how much time you are willing to invest in enforcing the policy. Whether you choose a formal, regimented policy, or take a more casual approach, here are some things to think about.

Clarity – be clear about what information is considered confidential and/or illegal or appropriate. Don’t assume your employees know what this looks like. Create a process for determining permissions for social media postings (what they can post without permission, what needs approval before posting, what can never be posted). These guidelines will reduce ambiguity and make it less likely someone inadvertently posts something that puts you at risk.

Consequences – be clear about the consequences of contravening your social media policy. The consequence should be appropriate to the seriousness of the infraction, but it should be clear that if they deliberately ignore the policy, there will be ramifications. Don’t create a model that is too restrictive or complex that it can’t be enforced.

Personal versus non-personal information – online, the lines between work and what employees may consider personal, are blurry at best. If they mention your business in a post or are seen in photos or videos in work-related settings or uniforms doing things that would be deemed inappropriate or damaging to your business, it’s no longer personal. Help them understand that whatever they put out on social media has the potential of going well beyond their personal use.

Responsibility and accountability – help employees realize they are responsible for what they post online. Provide examples of what is allowable and what is not.’  Have regular conversations highlighting examples of your team using social media effectively. Good judgment and common sense are subjective. Make sure your employees know what those words mean in your company.

Monitoring – ensure your team understands that their social media use at work may be monitored. This should be clearly stated in your policy. How strictly you monitor will likely depend on how at risk your company is, how complex your policy is, and how much time you are willing to spend ensuring your policies are being adhered to.

Writing the policy is just the first step. Consider the following to assist you with successfully implementing your policy with your team.

Introduce the purpose of social media in your company – help employees understand why the policy is in place so that they can see the importance of protecting your company, as well as protecting themselves from the potential ramifications and risks of improper use.’ 

Create a safe space for employees to share their concerns before taking them online – if employees know they can air their concerns and issues with management and are confident that those things will be addressed, resolved, or at least heard, they are less likely to take those things online in frustration.

Make the productivity connection – if your business is successful, everyone wins. When social media is misused and productivity suffers, so does everything else in the business, including their performance and continued employment with your company. When they understand this, they are more likely to comply.

Educate Employees – invest time and effort in educating your team on the ins and outs of the policy.’  A separate handbook can provide a quick and easy reference regarding all elements of the policy and make it easy to access and remember. Reviewing policies on a regular basis with your team increases their retention of the information and keeps it top of mind. Review your social media policy with new employees as part of onboarding to ensure they get it from day one with your company.’ 

Honour the policy – if you’re going to the trouble of creating a policy, make sure you actually follow through with the consequences when someone crosses a line. If you’re inconsistent, letting some things slide by while others are enforced, your team won’t know when to take you, or the policy, seriously.

Social media use at work is here to stay and banning it from the workplace entirely is impossible to police and not likely to be effective in the long run. Social media policies are a great way to strike a balance between creating guidelines for how it can be used effectively and protecting your business from potential damage online, as well as ensuring that it’s not being misused to the detriment of daily productivity and your company’s bottom line.