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Creating a sensible, defensible social media policy

It’s probably safe to say that social media is no longer a “hot, new business trend.” The practice of interacting on a wide variety of platforms — including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn — is pretty much part and parcel of operating in most industries. So, for employers, the question is no longer “Will our employees use social media?” as much as “How will our employees use social media?”

To effectively answer this question, your organization likely needs a formal social media policy. But crafting such a document — and enforcing it — is neither simple nor easy. These policies have potential pitfalls that can undermine the business value of social media and even land you in court.

Identify Your Objectives

The first key to establishing a sound social media policy is to identify, specifically, what you’re trying to achieve. Some typical objectives are to:

  • Protect the organization should a current or former employee post content that damages its brand or reputation,
  • Help current and former employees understand what they can and can’t do on social media,
  • Empower employees to use social media in appropriate and even innovative ways to strengthen an organization’s brand and reputation.

Naturally, your organization’s specific objectives must suit your industry, strategic goals and culture. If you work in a highly regulated, litigious sector, you’ll need to urge employees to be particularly careful and enforce your guidelines strictly. But if your organization has a free-wheeling and dynamic culture, you might implement a policy that focuses more on encouraging social media use rather than regulating it.

Learn About Compliance

Creating a social media policy may seem straightforward. You put together a list of dos and don’ts, send it to your staff and get back to work. But these policies can have major legal implications. So it’s critical to know the compliance factors involved and have an attorney review your policy before you distribute it.

The most widely discussed government entity regulating social media policies these days is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This independent federal agency’s primary functions are to administrate and enforce the National Labor Relations Act. For many years, the NLRB’s main role was dealing with union issues. But the agency appears to be establishing a new role as a social media policy overseer.

The NLRB is chiefly concerned with catching — and in some cases litigating against —employers with policies that restrict “concerted activity.” This is a legal term referring to an activity by an employee that addresses or applies to a group of employees. So, for example, if a social media policy broadly prohibits employees from discussing their compensation or lobbying for better benefits, it could land the employer in court because these are considered concerted activities.

Earlier this year, the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel released an Advice Memorandum (originally dated from 2012) that provides some guidance on what types of clauses in social media policies won’t likely get employers in trouble. One example was requiring employees to include a disclaimer on social media profiles that identifies them as employees of a given organization. Such a disclaimer might read something like: “The views and opinions expressed on this account are mine alone and don’t reflect the views of my employer.”

Another clause that passes muster with the NLRB is mandating that employees express themselves “in a respectful manner” on social media. The Memorandum stated that doing so wouldn’t prohibit staff from engaging in concerted activity and would be consistent with commonly accepted code of conduct clauses prohibiting threatening and profane language.

Revise and Train

As you write or revise your social media policy, here are two essential principles that every management team should keep in mind:

  1. Be vigilant and flexible. As nice as it would be to etch a social media policy in stone and set it out for all to see, the Internet doesn’t work that way. With new technologies coming online all the time, you’ll need to regularly review your policy and make adjustments.

For example, popular messaging app Snapchat promises to delete messages within 10 seconds of receipt — yet a screen shot can preserve them forever. Another growing social media platform is live video streaming, with apps such as Meerkat and Periscope. These allow users to broadcast real-time video anywhere there’s a strong data connection. What implications could this have in the workplace? No one is quite sure yet.

Apps aside, the NLRB and other government agencies — including the U.S. Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission — will likely continue to weigh in on the legality of social media policies. So you and your legal advisors need to remain cognizant of these developments and revise your policy as necessary.

  1. Train your workers diligently. Many organizations look at their social media policies as just another page in their employee handbooks. Maybe they require everyone to read and sign it but, after the policy is filed away, no one pays much attention to it. This is a mistake.

Now that social media is commonplace, it’s critical to thoroughly train employees to use it properly — and not just once, but on a regular basis. For new hires, integrate an explanation and discussion of your policy into your on-boarding process. Existing employees should receive reminders and updates on the policy. You might ask managers to make it a regularly scheduled agenda item in department meetings.

Keep Up

If your organization has yet to create or update its social media policy, you’re in danger of being left behind. International law firm Proskauer publishes an annual survey entitled “Social Media in the Workplace Around the World,” culling responses from more than 100 major companies worldwide. In the 2013-2014 edition, almost 80% of respondents reported having some sort of social media policy in place — up from 60% in 2012.

Don’t expose your organization to the risk of having a faulty or nonexistent social media policy. Performance Dimensions Group can help you sculpt a policy that not only offers protection, but also leverages the benefits of effective social media use. Contact us today!