Nearly three-quarters of all working adults in the U.S. use social media before, during and after work each business day, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. And with so many employees now working remotely, the boundaries between personal and professional use of social media can be blurry.
As a result, businesses of all sizes are realizing the importance of creating and updating social media policies so that employees have clear guidelines about what is and isn't appropriate online behavior.
"Your employees are active on social media whether you want them to be or not," said Emma Vites Patel, an account director with LinkedIn's Talent Solutions team in New York City. "If you want them to represent your brand professionally and enthusiastically, you have to give them some guardrails and then encourage their participation."
Small companies are especially at risk of employees misusing social media, but "it doesn't matter whether you have one employee or thousands, businesses need to have a policy that applies regardless of where people are working, even if it's not during work hours," said Nancy Flynn, founder and executive director of the ePolicy Institute, an HR training company in Columbus, Ohio, and the author of The Social Media Handbook (Wiley, 2012).
Assemble a Team
It's important to create a social media policy that includes everyone's perspective and addresses a wide range of concerns, including those of senior leadership, HR, legal, marketing, communications and IT.
"Social media is often viewed as a marketing function. But HR has a marketing function when it comes to attracting new employees," said Patel. "It's important to bring marketing and HR into the same conversation." That said, it's also important not to lose sight of HR's role in keeping social media in line with the company's other policies.
"HR's role in this process is to ensure your social media policy is consistent with the broader conduct and workplace policies at your company. You may even want your social media policy to directly reference or call out those other policies so that there's no confusion," said Vasilios Alexiou, co-founder of FirmPlay, an employee advocacy software company in Cambridge, Mass. "Additionally, it's a good idea for HR to ensure that all new employees review and/or train on the social media policy as part of their onboarding process."
Patel agrees. "Be sure to provide the policy to new hires in the employee handbook," she said.
At Qode Social, a 20-person social media marketing company in Toronto, new employees are asked to read and sign the social media policy to commit that they understand and agree to abide by the rules.
"A social media policy needs to be positive and support productivity rather than limit it, censor it and hold employees down. Nobody wants to feel restricted," said Claude-Dee Laguerre, Qode's vice president of business development. "Everyone needs to feel that they are safe, trusted and protected and that the company has their best interests at heart."
Of course, for a social media policy to be enforceable, employees must be trained in what it means, Flynn said. "If you don't explain how and why you're monitoring and what you're looking for, employees are likely to be offended if their boss is looking over their electronic shoulder."
"What your employees share on social media is a direct reflection on the company's brand as well as the employee's professional brand," said Kathi Kruse, founder and digital media strategist with Kruse Control, a digital media company in Newport Beach, Calif. "Employees need to be educated and trained to use social media. This can open their eyes to new possibilities and increase their willingness to participate in ways that benefit the company as well as the employees."
What to Include
Alexiou recommends that social media policies include the following elements:
- Roles. Identify the two main roles of employees on social media: official and unofficial. Make it clear that only the former can speak on behalf of the company.
- Acceptable conduct and content. What can and can't your employees post online? For example, employees must be respectful of others, be honest and transparent about their role, maintain workplace confidentiality, and so on. Prohibit online spats about the company and inflammatory or disrespectful language.
- Regulations, legal restrictions and sensitive information. Make sure your employees are fully aware of the kinds of content they can and cannot post per industry regulations.
- Procedure for conflict or crisis. Make it clear what your employees should do in these situations, including who they should reach out to for guidance and under what circumstances.
- Call to action for participation. Explain that their participation in social media can help them build their personal brand, help the company recruit top talent, and drive the company's sales and marketing activities. Encourage your employees to share why they enjoy working for you, how they feel supported by their manager or mentor, and customer testimonies about how your product or service impacted their life.
Know the Law
"The expanded reach of social platforms and their integration into our daily lives places organizations at a higher risk for damage to brand and reputation," said Alonzo Martinez, associate counsel with HireRight, a background-screening company in Irvine, Calif. "A good policy gives both employers and employees guidelines to follow in order to avoid risks and be more responsible on social media."
While employers have a lot of freedom when writing their social media policies, the lines between personal opinions and those expressed on behalf of the organization are sometimes murky.
"In most states it's legal for private-sector employers to terminate at-will employees for their off-duty conduct as long as they aren't members of a protected class," said Mark Kluger, an employment attorney with Kluger Healey in Fairfield, N.J. "Private employers are not obligated to retain employees whose personal views they do not share or which they believe might negatively impact the reputation of the enterprise."
One approach is to distinguish in the policy between what employees are allowed to post on the company's social media sites and what they can post about the company on their own personal accounts, said Daniel Prywes, an employment litigator with Morris, Manning & Martin in Washington, D.C.
"There may be restrictions on a state-by-state basis about what employers can do with respect to an employee's use of personal social media," he said. "Employers can tailor policies to the laws of the states where employees are located," but he cautioned against over-policing what employees do on social media.
"Small and medium-sized businesses are not like Facebook or Google, where they have hundreds of people available to monitor what employees are doing," he said. "The goal is to keep speech from poisoning the workplace, not to become the curator of all the content that employees share on social media."
The key to developing effective social media policies is to clearly define the subjective term "offensive," Kluger added. "For example, companies should specify that they want employees to avoid posting expressions of hate or intolerance on social media. It's really important for employees to understand what's appropriate and inappropriate."
Martinez advises that companies don't need to constantly monitor what their employees are saying on social media. "But they do need to be aware of things that can create issues for the company, like racially insensitive comments, derogatory comments that incite violence or criminal actions," he said.
He recommends that HR or IT run periodic screenings to determine whether there is anything being posted online concerning the company but cautions them to limit their monitoring to publicly available information. "Don't go around friending employees for the purpose of having access to the content they are posting on their personal accounts," he said.
A social media policy should reflect the company's culture and be consistent with other company policies, said Qode's Laguerre. "It's important for companies to be transparent about their expectations and what is and is not appropriate to post so there aren't any misunderstandings."
Because Qode's social media policy is explicitly anti-racist, Laguerre knew that when she posted a link to an article from CBC News that prominently featured her participation in an anti-racism and police brutality rally, she would have the support of her colleagues and co-workers. But the company went one step further. In addition to providing racial bias training to all employees, Qode gave Laguerre free rein to create activities that celebrated Black History Month and then tweeted out its support on the company's official Twitter account.
And on International Women's Day, the company tweeted out its appreciation for the hard work and contributions of all women. Laguerre believes that this culture of inclusivity has been instrumental in creating a close-knit group of people who have continued to work well together during the pandemic when everyone is working remotely.
"People want to work somewhere that aligns with their values," said Laguerre. "They want their company to be a good reflection of who they are."
Social media can also be a good place for employees to share their opinions and experiences. "People are more likely to trust information when it comes from employees because their voice is trusted more than the brand voice," said Patel.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, leaders at employee engagement measurement company Emplify instructed their data team to stop what they were working on and focus on developing a COVID-19 well-being assessment tool. The new tool was instantly successful, with more than 1,000 companies signing up in the first two weeks. But the intense group effort also took a toll on the 65-person company in Fishers, Ind.
"After reviewing our engagement data, it became clear to us that our employees needed rest," said co-founder and chief people officer Adam Weber, author of Lead Like a Human (Advantage, 2020). So the company decided to implement a four-day workweek for a month to give their employees time to recover. When Weber shared a post on Twitter about the company's decision, the tweet went viral, getting 5 million views and 100,000 "likes."
"It said something about how people were feeling," Weber said.
Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.