Question:

As a business owner I should probably already know this, but what exactly is a social media policy? And, more importantly, is this something I need to have for my company?

Answer:

A social media policy is generally a written policy that an employer has to address its employees’ use of social networking websites. The policies regulate the content that employees are allowed to post on such sites, particularly with regard to comments about the employer’s workplace and other employees. While this can be a very important issue for an employer, most do not have a social media policy in place. In fact, less than 30% of U.S. employers have a social media policy, despite the fact that today’s workforce is almost universally online and active in at least one social media context or another. For example, Facebook claims to have over 400 million active users worldwide, while the professional networking site LinkedIn has more than 40 million users.

In light of this growing phenomenon, many employers are now realizing that these types of websites are affecting their workplaces in ways they hadn’t expected or anticipated. While employers often recognize the potential value of social networking sites and the benefits they can have (e.g., for promoting one’s business or making professional contacts), there are also significant problems posed by such sites, including loss of productivity and employees misusing online platforms to discuss inappropriate subject matter or to “slam” their employer or coworkers. As a result, many companies are now implementing social media policies outlining for employees the accepted principles of online communications.
The following is a guide to the basics of social media policies—this should get you started with regard to drafting and implementing such a policy if you feel it would be worthwhile to your business to do so.

Why: Most employers’ social media policies are intended to address the unfortunate situation in which an employee has posted inappropriate content online. This could include anything from racy pictures of the employee, to criticisms of the individual’s coworkers or supervisors, to content that may actually be illegal. Employers should inform their employees that they have the right to monitor employee use of social media (even if done while on personal time), and that employees do not have a right to privacy with respect to social networking. Employees should also be informed that company policies regarding code of conduct and unlawful harassment and discrimination extend to all forms of communication (including social media) both inside and outside the workplace, and that posting inappropriate content online can lead to consequences at work.

What: Your social media policy should, at a minimum, include the following: a prohibition against sharing confidential company information, including information about clients and customers; a prohibition against posting derogatory, defamatory, or inflammatory content about others for any reason; a requirement that employee abide by the law and refrain from posting pictures or other information that even implies that he/she has been engaged in illegal conduct; a requirement that employees respect the privacy rights of their coworkers when posting content online; and a statement that any conduct that would be grounds for dismissal if performed at work will likewise be grounds for dismissal if performed online (for example, employees should be cautioned against using race-, religion-, or gender-based slurs, and they should also be informed that online harassing or threatening behavior will not be tolerated.

Who: Because everyone in today’s world has access to social media, an effective policy should apply to all employees just as any other personnel policy would. However, you may wish to consider whether your company’s managers and supervisors will be held to a more exacting standard than other subordinate employees, and/or what their responsibilities are with regard to enforcing the policy. All employees should be told that the employer’s expectations with regard to the use of any communication medium (e.g., phones or email) also extend to the use of online social media sites.

Where: A written social media policy should be included in your employee handbook or personnel manual, and should be treated just like any other written policy. If it is convenient to revise your existing handbook, you can simply include the new social media policy in your revised version and then require your employees to sign an acknowledgment of having received and understood the policies contained in the handbook. If you do not currently wish to revise your entire handbook, you can also circulate your new social media policy to your employees as a stand-alone policy, and require that they sign off acknowledging their receipt of the policy. These acknowledgments should be retained in your employees’ personnel files.

When: Now is really the time to think about implementing a social media policy, what with social media sites growing at their current breakneck speed. Because of the prevalence of social media sites today, social media should be thought of in the same manner as any other form of communication, and should be addressed in the same way and as soon as possible. Your social media policy should therefore simply be an extension of what your business currently has in place with regard to the use of other media types.
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