“May you live in interesting times,” British statesman Austen Chamberlain told an audience more than 80 years ago.
On its face, such a pronouncement seems positive enough.
Chamberlain, however, claimed a fellow British diplomat told him it was actually an ancient Chinese curse.
Companies navigating today’s ever-changing digital landscape likely agree with the latter characterization of that saying, because when it comes to defining rules for social media use by employees, corporations certainly have their hands full.
Just consider a modern world where:
• The president of the United States regularly uses Twitter to take his messages directly to the people.
• Antonio Brown, an all-pro receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, turned the previous norm of what players reveal to the public on its head when he did a Facebook Live broadcast of his coach’s post-game speech from inside the locker room immediately following a dramatic playoff win against the Kansas City Chiefs.
• Deutsche Bank AG recently told employees that it would ban them from texting for business uses except on systems the bank can monitor and record.
• There are now entire teams within companies devoted to researching the latest usage of social media.
So dust off and update that social media policy from 10 years, five years or probably even two years ago, because simply having guidelines in place isn’t nearly enough of a safeguard.
According to the most recent full Pew Research Center survey on social media habits, the majority of employers already have rules for how employees use social media at work.
Among the findings:
• 51 percent say their workplace has rules about using social media while at work;
• 45 percent say their employer does not have these policies;
• 32 percent report their employer has policies about internet communications by employees; and
• 63 percent reveal their employer does not have these policies.
Perhaps most interesting, employees whose companies have social media policies are less likely to use social media for personal reasons while on the job, but more than three-quarters (77 percent) of workers said they use social media at work regardless of any policy in place.
In June 2017, the First Amendment rights of social media users gained national attention when the United States Supreme Court ruled that sex offenders cannot be broadly banned by state action from using social media platforms. Though the decision does not cause an immediate impact on business policies, it speaks to the ever-changing environment that exists on the internet today, and the reciprocal need to evolve with it. The internet is not only a key source of information, but it also serves as the main vehicle for many citizens to express their views. Restrictions on social media use are increasingly likely to provoke challenges on First Amendment grounds.
Bottom line: Every day presents a new challenge because the expected standards of appropriate use and taste are clearly in the eye of the beholder, so companies need to define where to draw the line and pick their battles without violating the rights of their employees and negatively impacting the culture inside their workplace.
However, this doesn’t mean employees should expect or receive the same freedoms when posting to social media at work that they enjoy at home. Nor does it mean posts made outside the office are immune to scrutiny.
After all, as amusing as it might be to laugh from afar at social media mistakes (or “fails” as younger generations might call them), legitimate reputational and legal issues can arise from the wrong types of posts, including defamation, libel, slander, human resources issues and release of confidential or proprietary information.
So how does an organization go about creating, enforcing and constantly updating a social media policy in 2017?
At minimum, they should consider the following:
• Freedom of speech—This is like walking a tightrope, especially when a company is truly trying to protect its reputation. In drafting a policy, employers should consider including a savings clause, which confirms for employees that the policy can’t restrict their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The National Labor Relations Board consistently strikes down social media policies that have a chilling effect on protected rights. For example, company social media policies can’t prohibit communications related to an individual’s wages, working hours and conditions.
• Disciplinary action—Employee discipline should follow the regular disciplinary policies of your company and the consequences for violations should be spelled out. The social media policy should augment existing guidelines in your employee handbook. In other words, potential consequences for inappropriate social media activity should be similar to the ramifications for unacceptable behavior in the workplace.
• Proper identity disclosure—No matter the industry in which they are working, employees should be required to identify their affiliation with their company in a proactive manner when communicating any information about the organization. They need to do this before anyone asks the name of their business. Employees should never use work email addresses to register on social networks used for personal use.
• Employees speaking for the company—Employees should convey that their opinions belong to them and aren’t the official positions of the business. If possible, employees should include this type of qualification on their social media profiles, assuming they’ll be sharing news or information relevant to their industry or their competitors.
• Specific, narrow language—The definition of “social media” in your policy should encompass all methods and means of communication for posting content on the internet, no matter if it’s on the employee’s own social platform or someone else’s and regardless of whether the messages are conveyed in websites, chatrooms or via email. The more specific and narrow you can be with the language in the policy, the better.
• Alignment with HR—Discrimination and harassment policies apply to social media. Postings should be consistent with those rules. Toward that end, they should not:
1. Contain abusive, vulgar, offensive, threatening or harassing language.
2. Negatively target or attack specific individuals, groups or organizations.
3. Express personal views or opinions on topics like politics and religion.
4. Include copyright and trademarked materials from other organizations.
• Outline what constitutes “confidential”—Trade secrets, internal reports and business communications should never be discussed online. The justifiable expectations of confidentiality that companies and their clients expect and maintain are applicable to social media usage. In the financial world, for example, it’s illegal to communicate, give a tip or provide inside information on buying or selling stocks. It doesn’t matter how you share this material. It still violates insider trading laws.
At the end of the day, employees need to use common sense and think before they post.
This starts and ends with consistent education and reinforcement of the behaviors you expect from your employees.
Creating, drafting and consistently reviewing a well-defined social media policy can allow employers and their employees to use social media as an effective marketing tool in a way that will also protect their best interests. •