Office Management & HR

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Developing a Social Media Policy for Employees

Filed under Office & HR.

Establishing a clear social media policy--and enforcing it consistently--is imperative to almost all small businesses now.

Every industry is different, every company is different. But that odds are most small business owners' employees are somewhat active in social media. In the grand scheme of things, their social media activity is likely harmless to themselves and your business. That reason, however, is not a good reason to avoid addressing and codifying a social media policy.

Consider the existing human resources policies (we hope) you have in place. The overwhelming majority of small business owners never have to enforce them. And hopefully you'll never have any problematic employees who require disciplinary measures spelled out in your company's handbook. Yet small businesses use handbooks for two very important reasons:

  • to set a tone that the company is professional and respectful of its employees
  • to ensure protocol exists "just in case" infractions happen

Because you’re in the transportation industry, we assume you’ll want to include language that forbids employees from using social media and smartphones while operating company vehicles. Such a statement is perfectly within your rights as an employer. What employees do on their smart phones outside of work is an entirely different matter.

Below we’ve provided as much guidance as possible to help you craft your policy. We recommend you ask a lawyer to review the policy before sharing it with your employees.

General Policy Suggestions

As you develop your policy, keep these points top of mind:

  • Be precise in your definition of what constitutes social media. You may want to include a sentence, such as: “Social media include but are not limited to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram,Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, MySpace, and blogs.”
  • Ensure disciplinary measures for breaking the policy are clearly defined and enforced.
  • Provide the updated policy to all current employees. You may want employees to sign an agreement form stating they understand and will abide by the policy.
  • Include the policy in all new-hire orientation materials.

At the Office/On Duty – Forbidding or Severely Limiting Social Media Access

As an employer, you have every right to block employees from visiting social media sites on your computers or any other company-issued devices. This right extends to any device connected to your network. If you have no qualms with employees using social media during lunch, for example, you can restrict social media use to certain amount of time per day or a certain block of time during the workday.

If employees violate this social media policy, follow your normal disciplinary action procedures. For example:

  • one infraction might warrant a verbal warning
  • a second infraction might earn them a written warning
  • a third infraction might necessitate a second written warning and a “last strike” notice
  • a fourth infraction might result in termination

 Of course, if the social media infraction is severe, you may consider bypassing this process.

At the Office/On Duty – Allowing Social Media Access

Some employers consider social media an opportunity for their employees to connect with customers and prospects. As such, they allow—and sometime encourage—employees to use social media at work. If this is the case, most employers follow common social media etiquette guidelines for employees, such as requesting staff members to:

  • Acknowledge all posts and opinions are solely their own by including a disclaimer on their social media profiles stating employees are not directly representing your company.
  • Always remain polite and courteous.
  • Abstain from profanity and sensitive topics, such as discussions of religion or politics.
  • Ensure any comments about your company are positive.
  • Keep social media posts work-related.
  • Never post trade secrets or internal company information.
  • Identify their positions in the company accurately.
  • Refrain from belittling competitors and competitors’ partners.

Large employers that allow social media use such as Wal-Mart and Ford emphasize the importance of their employees being honest and using their best judgment. If you consider social media beneficial to your business, ensure your policy clearly states that its use must not interfere with employees’ normal duties.

At the Office/On Duty – Social Media on Personal Smartphones

Because employees’ smartphones use an Internet connection unrelated to your network, you generally cannot forbid them to use social media on these devices. However, you can include language about “keeping personal phone use to a minimum.”  For example, if your handbook limits employee phone use to break and lunch time, specify that rule applies to the use of social media on their smart phones.  And, as mentioned above, when smartphone use poses any danger to employees or customers, you can forbid phone use.

Outside of the Office/Off Duty

When employees are not on the clock, you still have some influence over their social media use, just as you would if they made disparaging remarks about your company on the local news.  Of course, you do not want your employees thinking you’re monitoring their personal lives, and employees do have some social media rights.

You can include language about employees including disclaimers (as mentioned above) on their social media profiles and keeping confidential company information confidential. You cannot, however, categorically stop employees from:

  • maintaining social media accounts and blogs
  • criticizing your company
  • using your company’s name or address in their social media profiles

Actions as Your Disposal

Because of these protections, many employees think they can’t be fired over a social media post. They are simply wrong.

The CFO of Francesca’s, a chain of upscale women’s boutiques, was recently fired for inappropriate tweets. A survey released in April 2012 revealed that 87 percent of respondents would consider firing employees who leaked confidential information on social media. However, just because some social media activity merits termination doesn’t provide you the leeway to fire employees for any unflattering social media use.

In late 2011, The National Labor Relations Board issued a 24-page “Report Concerning Social Media Cases” (PDF). The Board is attempting to provide union and non-union workers the right to “protected concerted activity.” This boils down to allowing employees to discuss working conditions over social media. For example, if your employees approach you about a concern, they can discuss that concern on social media from their smartphones or non-work computers.

However, if an employee made inappropriate comments about your business that were irrelevant to the discussion of working conditions, the NLRB recognizes that as a fireable offense. Also, employees have strength in numbers—multiple employees making similar posts about working conditions after raising the issue to management is generally permissible whereas a single employee shooting off about work without sharing concerns with management is not.

Another caveat: Employees can also use social media anonymously. Though you may think you know who’s behind a Twitter account that violates company policy, the onus is on you to prove authorship. Whenever you’re in a gray area with anonymous accounts or possible protected concerted activity, contact a lawyer before making any disciplinary or termination decisions.

We know this is a lot of information to digest, but we hope it will help you develop a practical social media policy that protects your company and promotes a common-sense approach to social media among your employees.

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