In a world where every aspect of our lives is shared online, social media is becoming a minefield for SMEs. Much of the content employees publish on their personal accounts is innocent and harmless, yet recently there have been an increasing number of cases where the controversial actions of individuals online has led to their professional dismissal.
Many of us are familiar with stories of Hollywood giants being persecuted in the press for their posts on social media, such as James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, who was recently fired over tweets he had posted years before on Twitter. However, it is not just the rich and famous who risk being dismissed for their inappropriate social media posts. One woman was recently fired from her job as a machinery operator for making a joke about suing her employer in a Facebook post.
While these cases appear black and white, many employees feel that their companies do not set clear enough guidelines for what they expect. A recent study conducted by Richard Nelson LLP found that 49% of employed, British adults think that their employer could do more to clarify their expectations regarding social media. In contrast to the 248 people out of 500 who asked for more clarity, only 139 (28%) said that their employer is clear enough, while the remaining 113 people were unsure.
The results for millennials (people aged 18-35) are even more pronounced, as they are more likely to work somewhere without a social media policy (26%, as opposed to 19% of respondents aged 35+). Correspondingly, millennials are more likely to think that their employer could do more to make their attitudes towards social media clear (58%, as opposed to 44% of older generations).
With this in mind, it is imperative that SMEs learn more about what makes a good social media policy so that they can be crystal clear with their staff. Here is our four-step guide to creating a watertight and futureproof social media policy:
1. Seek input from staff
The ideas and opinions of your workforce should be integral to your social media policy. Hearing their thoughts on what they think is appropriate to share online might change your perspective. For example disproportionate restrictions can undermine employee morale and invite non-compliance, without any real benefit to your company in terms of protecting its property, reputation or employees.
In addition, seeking the input of your staff will help create a dialogue on the matter and hopefully lead to more long-lasting changes in their use of social media. By engaging staff at the drafting staff this will ensure that staff are then made aware of the new rules and regulations and understand the reasons for the rules.
2. Regularly update and review
Social media is never static, and your policy shouldn't be either. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter update their algorithms and introduce major new features on almost a weekly basis. Whether it’s Facebook Stories, Instagram carousel posts or larger character allowances on tweets, there are innumerable ways that employees can overshare on social media and create PR crises for SMEs.
It's vital you keep up with these changes so that they can be reflected in your social media policy. For example, if a social media update increases the likelihood of a damaging data breach, inform your staff about the steps they can take to avoid this. It is always best to err on the side of caution, so be proactive in updating your social media policy in line with industry updates.
3. Establish Brand Guidelines
Establishing who can speak on behalf of your business is essential, as allowing everyone to do so can create contradicting brand messages. Major brands like Walmart and Coca Cola have crafted public documents that outline their expectations for personal use of social media. For example, employees are expected to be responsible for their actions and while individuals are encouraged to have fun online, they should always use sound judgement in what they choose to disclose.
You could specify that employees should not answer customer complaints or questions without prior approval by management. Employees can also be asked to make it clear that they do not speak for the business by including a disclaimer in their bio. Make it clear that mixing their business lives with their personal lives can negatively impact your company’s reputations, and as such they should always be conscientious when mentioning their position at the company online.
4. Deliver training
A key reason employees often fail to adhere to an SME’s existing social media policy is because it was not properly explained to them. Instead, many employers simply provide a document detailing the social media policy and expect the employee to read it on top of all of their other tasks.
Even if they do so, important information can quickly be forgotten and the social media policy becomes redundant. Employers should, therefore, find ways to communicate their expectations more effectively to employees.
In particular, employers should stress that anything an employee posts is, in fact, public. They should also highlight the consequences that can follow from inappropriate online behaviour. Talking to staff face-to-face about the policy will help to cement the boundaries of what is considered permitted use.
It is essential that employers make their expectations regarding social media use clear if they want to avoid difficult situations in the future. Setting up a pragmatic and enforceable social media policy allows an employer to minimize risks associated with employee use of social media by proactively defining acceptable and unacceptable use in the context of an employment relationship.
The employer should consider whether or not they will encourage the personal use of social media, how to regulate the professional use of social media and their stance on acceptable social media use outside of the workplace. Once everything is decided and made clear, both SME owners and employees can continue to enjoy everything social media has to offer.
About the Author
Marie Dancer and Jayne Harrison are both employment law specialists at Richard Nelson LLP. Richard Nelson LLP is a UK-based law firm with offices in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham and other cities around the country. The firm was classified as ‘top tier’ in the Legal 500 2017.