How do you handle it when an employee posts troubling or inappropriate comments on social media? Do you refer to your social media policy for employees? Or, if you don’t have one, do you spend more time than you’d like on damage control and attorney’s fees to counter any negative impact to your business?
Much of social media can seem like a high-tech version of the Wild West these days, with emotions running high and few hard rules to govern what’s happening.
The corporate road has become littered with major PR disasters sparked by employee activity on social media. Though social media has matured some in recent years, this situation shows no signs of letting up.
What can your company do to protect itself should an employee’s comments cross the line? Unfortunately, no clear answers exist. In almost all cases, the answer is: It depends.
That being said, there are some things you can do proactively to help keep your employees’ activity on social media from casting an unfavorable light on your business. Here are five steps to guide you.
Weigh your business needs
As a business owner, it’s crucial that you set and communicate social media guidelines to prevent putting your company in an embarrassing position – or worse yet, a damaging one.
Basically, you need to ask yourself two key questions:
- How do you balance the company’s need to control its brand image with an employee’s right to personal privacy?
- Are there legitimate business reasons for limiting an employee’s conversations on social media? For example, does your industry or the nature of your business warrant extreme privacy for security purposes? Think: Law enforcement officials whose social sharing may endanger them or compromise their team’s safety.
Providing parameters that respect your team’s life outside of work, while also protecting what’s in the best interest of your business, can be a tricky tightrope to walk. But it’s important that you consider all the different factors to determine what works for your organization and your people.
Put it in writing
Even if your company doesn’t market its products and services using social media, you should have a written social media policy that addresses what’s acceptable – and what isn’t – for your employees to share and say.
As with other HR policies, you should have employees sign that they have read and understand the policy. You may also want to regularly remind workers of your standards to reinforce them.
To be clear, there are typically two types of guidelines you’ll want to consider when it comes to social media:
- Rules governing those employees whose job it is to officially communicate on behalf of the company using social media (assuming your company has a social media presence)
- Guidelines that apply to employees’ personal comments on social media
It’s pretty straightforward if an employee is speaking on behalf of your organization. These employees must be thoroughly trained in what your company considers brand-appropriate messaging and how to respond to customer comments, both positive and negative.
They also need to respect copyright laws and know how to properly reference materials so your business is not accused of plagiarism.
But when an employee is commenting on their personal social media accounts, the situation gets murky.
Spell out what’s OK when talking about the company
It’s a common misconception that the First Amendment gives everyone the right to say or write anything they want, with the general exceptions of libel, slander, hate speech and inciting violence.
However, the First Amendment only protects individuals from government interference in what they say. It’s different for private employers.
A company can prohibit employees from revealing confidential and proprietary company information, such as sales figures and client information. There are legitimate business reasons for that.
Organizations cannot prevent employees from commenting on working conditions or wage and hour issues, per rules set by the National Labor Relations Board. But employees still need training to understand exactly what is and is not acceptable social media activity related to the company.
For example, an enthusiastic salesperson may want to announce on their personal LinkedIn page that they’ve landed a new client by publicly welcoming them to your company’s “family.” While the salesperson is likely well-intentioned, the client may consider their work with your company confidential.
Depending on your company, such informal announcements may be forbidden by your contract or may be communicated exclusively through your official marketing channels. Whatever your standards, employees must be made aware of the behavior you expect, whether online or offline.
Lay down ground rules for talking about other people
Social media comments are generally acceptable, as long as an employee is not targeting any individual or group specifically. For example, if an employee had a frustrating day at work and shares his feelings in a status message on Facebook, it may be extreme to consider this defamatory to your company.
But, in comparison, if an employee makes an offensive comment about their manager or another employee, it may be considered harassment or bullying and needs to be addressed in person immediately.
Just as you don’t tolerate bullying, discrimination or harassment in person, there should be a company-wide understanding that there is zero tolerance for threatening, discriminatory or harassing comments on social media, and that it could result in immediate termination.
Be careful, though. You don’t want to create such draconian policies that happy employees avoid posting positive comments about your organization.
You also don’t want employees to feel like they can’t be themselves, although you do have an obligation as a company to create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe and is treated with respect and civility.
As with any action that requires an employee to use their judgment, it’s helpful to provide examples of appropriate and inappropriate social media comments and behaviors – and make consequences known. You want to make it clear that these parameters are put in place to protect the business and its employees, not to censor anyone’s thoughts or expression.
Think carefully about disciplinary action
It may be helpful to appoint a social media task force or team of trusted employees to monitor and address how your company and its employees are depicted on social media.
This team can make sure inappropriate or defamatory content is taken down immediately if it appears on a company account. In turn, they can respond with appropriate messaging before beginning an investigation into what happened.
Disciplinary action for employees who violate your social media policy should be decided on a case-by-case basis, yet still follow practices consistent with your company’s other disciplinary efforts.
Harassment and breach of confidentiality are two examples that may result in termination. For less detrimental comments, or for something that’s troubling but doesn’t actually break any rules, counseling the employee may be sufficient.
Negative reviews from employees on sites such as Glassdoor should also be carefully considered. Companies must be cautious when making disciplinary decisions that may be interpreted as targeted to protected concerted activity, religious beliefs, political views, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health issues or age.
Negative reviews aren’t all bad. Think of less-than-positive reviews as opportunities to gain important insight into problem areas your company needs to address.
If you decide to terminate an employee due to their personal social media activity, be sure to collect all the appropriate evidence and documentation prior to addressing the employee. Similar to any termination, everything needs to be well planned and noted.
Before confronting the employee, it may be wise to seek legal counsel to ensure the reasons for termination are valid. Also, a reputable professional employer organization (PEO) can guide you in determining appropriate measures and developing a foolproof social media policy for employees.
Social media disasters are only one of the many crises your company can face. Learn how to prepare yourself and your organization when you download our free e-magazine: How to manage your business through a crisis.