Every day 3.2 billion of us log into a social media site, which equates to around 42% of the world’s population.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and emerging social media platforms are now more prevalent in our lives than ever before. While we can choose to use this how we like for our personal use, this can also have a knock-on effect to employers.
HR are tasked with the tricky responsibility of defining what constitutes acceptable use of social media, both in and outside of the workplace. In this article, we’ll help you to devise, implement and monitor a social media policy that balances the nuances of social media use.
Why is a Social Media Policy Important?
Social media platforms are more accessible and widely used than ever before. Through responsible use, employees can enjoy news and updates from others. However, when used irresponsibly, this can cause massive drops in productivity and even a negative backlash for the organisation.
In the last few years, employers have been ever more aware of what their employees do on social media. From talking about wages on Twitter to racist tirades, the employee’s personal profile has the public perception of their employer. While this is technically not taking place in the workplace, the organisation has a tough choice to make.
The recent firing of radio DJ Danny Baker shows that employers do have the power to sack employees where their conduct outside of work damages their employer. While employees still have a right to privacy in their lives outside of work, the employer can also take steps to protect their reputation where required.
Social media can also be a platform for cyber-bullying and exclusionary practices. While this is not limited to social media, employers should be aware when this is being used as a tool to exclude or bully employees.
As you can see, this is not a case of right and wrong – instead there’s a lot of room for interpretation by employer and employee. For this reason, it’s essential that employers have a clear social media policy that outlines what is expected from employees, and what constitutes gross misconduct.
Tailoring this policy is what makes it most effective, as there are many situations where social media use would be acceptable in one context but not in another. Some employers may allow employees to use humour when talking about their work, whereas others would find this unacceptable.
Think about what makes sense for your company when drawing up this policy. You may give individual employees more discretion when dealing with this, or you may be bound by industry norms and require adherence to strict rules.
No matter how strict or lax your policy is, it should be spelled out to employees clearly. If you ever need to take action against an employee because of social media, this is the evidence that matters.
Defining Social Media
Social media is an incredibly broad term, which encompasses many different brands within it. These platforms can gain users quickly, so it’s important to cover existing and future brands within your policy.
Define social media broadly and include specific examples that are easily recognisable, like Facebook and Twitter. Some companies also use this section to educate their staff on the perils of social media. You can provide information on privacy, representing the company and the fact that information can never really be removed from the internet entirely.
Use this to impress upon them the importance of the rest of the policy; this will give the document more credence.
Procedures During Working Hours
If you don’t want social media to eat into staff productivity, then you can define how this should be used in the workplace. Some employers choose to block access to these sites on their company infrastructure, but this doesn’t eliminate this risk.
Instead of a blanket ban on social media, some employers have found it more realistic to ask employees to be savvy with their time on social media. They don’t ban this entirely but give staff the autonomy to consider whether this is really causing an issue within their working day.
Outside of the Workplace
Employee’s social media has the potential to affect the employer outside of the workplace too. Employers can find it difficult to define this usage, as they want employees to be able to represent their true selves on social media.
In the bio section of most social media sites, there is the option to add a job description. When employees do so, they begin to represent the company on social media. For this reason, companies should impress upon employees that their actions could potentially impact the organisation and how it is viewed.
While employees should still be able to express opinions on social media, they should make it clear that these are their own opinions and not those of the employer. Where these views are offensive, they should also understand that this has the potential to impact their employment.
Again, allowing employees to exercise their own judgement can be prudent. You may ask that they clarify that views are their own and where talking about the company, they refrain from disclosing sensitive data.
Businesses now want their employees to talk positively about them on social media but with a restrictive policy this is unlikely to happen. They use caveats to cover sensitive information and ask that their employees use common sense as to the type of content that they post.
Implementation and Monitoring
Employers don’t actively have to police social media usage until this becomes a problem. For example, if an employee has a dip in productivity then you may want to check their social media use with IT. This could be an indication of a wider employee engagement issue, not just limited to social media.
Employees should be made aware that their usage is being monitored, although many will take this as a given.
When implementing a social media policy, HR should be ready to field questions from employees. Some may be resistant to this change and need reassurance that they have a sounding board for these questions. Caution employees that if they’re unsure of whether a post would violate this agreement, then should not go forward with it.
Dealing with Policy Violations
Assuming that you’ve laid out this information clearly, you can act quickly in the case of a serious policy violation. Try to keep the response proportionate to the violation, as you don’t want to blow a small violation out of proportion.
For productivity related issues, simply telling the employee that you’re aware of disproportionate social media use may be enough to curtail it. They may believe they’re still doing their job to the same standard or that their usage has gone unnoticed, but by bringing this up to them you show that this is not the case.
One-off offences may warrant a warning, rather than more serious action. Consider the reputation of the employee and how they conduct themselves beyond the issue at hand. If it’s the latest in a long line of unprofessional behaviour, then this may position you towards dismissal instead of a warning.
You should also take into account the actions of the employee in the wake of the incident. If they post something in haste but realise the consequences and delete it, this may put them in a more positive light.
Due to the permanence of screenshots and other caching methods, their post may exist in some shape or form which has been reported to HR. Their efforts to delete this post may indicate a later awareness of the inappropriate nature of the action.
If you do have to take action against an employee, ensure that you have the correct documentation. Signed and dated policies, acknowledgement of receipt and a note of earlier warnings show that the employer is just in their actions. If you don’t have this documentation, the employee could claim that they were never furnished with this information, which could be upheld at a tribunal.
When dealing with older social media statuses that have only recently come to light, it can be difficult to decide on a proportionate response. While the employee may feel like they have changed since they were created, this can still be cause for concern assuming the employee was working for the employer during that time.
Interaction with Other Policies
Social media policies may also interact with others, making the situation more complicated for HR. One example could be if you have a whistleblowing policy, which protects the speech of the person highlighting the issue. You can explicitly state that social media declarations are not protected under this policy and other routes should be taken to communicate.
Depending on the workplace, there may also be policies about protecting anonymity, which can be influenced by social media. In certain scenarios, employees may think they are posting an innocuous photo, but information about a patient or vulnerable adult may be visible.
This could compromise their privacy, which could lead to serious disciplinary action for the employee. Encourage staff to be mindful of these requirements within the social media policy, preferably with links to further documentation on anonymity.
Reviewing and Adapting
As we all know, the world of technology moves at a dizzying pace. For this reason, you should revisit your social media policy and update it when needed. Even small amendments can offer greater protection to the employer.
Document the receipt of amendments to this policy and an effective date to keep your paperwork impeccable. Keep up to date with recent cases to make yourself aware of any changes to the legal landscape that would impact your policy.
To get you started on crafting a cohesive social media policy, you can take a look at these examples from established brands:
This automotive based company uses the rules of the road as an analogy to explain their social media policy. They break this down into just a few simple concepts and invite further questions from their members of staff. They also provide education and advice throughout.
In their guidance for civil servants, the UK government sets out the positive sides of using social media for organisations, before delivering actionable advice for their employees. The foundation of the guide is common sense, which is built upon by specific links to documentation on ethics, codes of conduct and other in-depth guides.
This tech giant breaks down their social media policy into six simple concepts. They encourage their employees to discuss and have fun, while also being mindful of how their actions could be perceived. This keeps the discussion light-hearted while also impressing the vital information that the employee needs.
Social media and discussion can be beneficial to a business, when controlled with a comprehensive policy. When staff can comfortably engage in discussions within the confines of a policy, they can feel less restricted.