Navigating the Slippery Slope of Social Media Policies

Businesses use IT policies to protect their assets and govern their employees. One policy that is often missing, though, is the social media policy. Having a social media policy is important, but writing one can be difficult because it needs to strike a balance between a company’s needs and the employees’ legal rights. Fortunately, expert advice on how to navigate this slippery slope is available.

Why Your Business Needs a Social Media Policy

Nowadays, people post many details about their professional and personal lives on social media networks. A social media policy gives you a way to present guidelines to employees about what they can or cannot post. Having guidelines is important, as employees’ unauthorized and inappropriate comments could:

  • Get your business into legal trouble
  • Create negative publicity, hurting your business’s reputation
  • Weaken your business’s security defenses, putting it at risk for cyberattacks
  • Hurt your business’s competitive advantage if proprietary information is published online

How a Social Media Policy Differs from Other Types of IT Policies

A social media policy is different than other types of IT policies in two main ways. For starters, most IT policies state what employees should and should not do in certain situations. For example, a laptop security policy might state that employees must physically secure their laptops when not in use and not allow anyone else to use them. Stating what employees should and should not do is more difficult in a social media policy because there is no way to know exactly what situations might arise.

The other main difference is that a social media policy needs to consider employees’ legal rights. This is typically not of concern in other types of IT policies. Complicating matters even further is that laws regarding social media are still in the process of being interpreted.

Experts’ Recommendations

Because a social media policy is different from other types of policies, writing one can be difficult. To help you, experts offer the following recommendations:

Keep employees’ legal rights in mind when writing your social media policy. Your policy needs to strike a balance between the needs of your business and the legal rights of your employees, given the country in which your business operates. Sometimes, there are resources that can help you with this.

In the United States, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has outlined eight ways in which a social media policy might violate employees’ rights. For example, stating that employees cannot post disparaging comments about their companies or their bosses violates employees’ rights. According to the NLRB, employees have the legal right to criticize their employers’ labor policies and treatment of employees.

Some experts suggest that you go beyond just keeping employees’ rights in mind when creating a social media policy. They recommend including a description of the types of online activities that are protected by law, followed by a statement noting that the policy does not intend to interfere with those rights in any way.

Identify the types of social media activities that are not protected by law and thus subject to disciplinary action. The activities that you need to include in this section of your social media policy will depend on the country in which you do business. For example, in the United States, the social media activities that might subject employees to disciplinary action include threats of violence or comments that are racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory. The National Law Review lists some other activities that U.S. businesses might want to include.

Ask employees to use common sense when posting online. Asking employees to post responsibly can go a long way in helping you meet your company’s needs while preserving employees’ legal rights. Social media expert Brian Honigman writes, "By giving your employees enough latitude to trust their own instincts and communicating that you trust and rely on their good judgment, they will not feel like they are being forced to do anything and will instead feel personally responsible to represent the company sensibly."

Avoid legal jargon. Although your social media policy must comply with various laws, it should be easy to read and understand. This will increase the likelihood that employees will follow the guidelines in the policy.

Use existing social media policies as a guide when writing your social media policy. The Social Media Governance website has a large database of social media policies that you can review. Inc. magazine recommends looking at the guidelines written by Cisco, IBM, and Intel.

Consider writing two social media policies. If your business uses social media in its marketing efforts, consider writing two policies: one for employees using social media for their job and one for employees using social media in their personal lives.

Have a lawyer review your social media policy. Because social media policies need to consider employees’ legal rights, it is a good idea to have a lawyer review your policy. Specifically, this lawyer should be savvy with regards to social media. Although a legal review can be expensive, it is much cheaper than facing a lawsuit.