Employers Facing Social Media Policy Challenges

“Social media is content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies…” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_media

Social media has expanded exponentially in recent years, leaving many businesses and their employees in uncharted territory. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogs, Instant Messaging… and countless others means of humans interacting electronically. People are interacting in ways that did not even exist until very recently and creating serious challenges for businesses and their employees because there are no established guidelines, no one-size-fits-all policy and no slow down in sight. It isn’t just Gen Y either. My 80 year old mother regularly communicates with friends and family on Facebook so don’t assume your employees aren’t there or in countless other places in cyberspace.

Not very long ago if companies added computer, internet and email usage policies to their handbooks they could be pretty confident that their risk was minimized even if not completely eliminated. If the policies were properly communicated and enforced, in conjunction with solid non-disclosure rules, most employees would not breach company security, disclose proprietary information or waste their work hours playing video poker. With the addition of some basic monitoring of employee computer usage, a good firewall and sometimes more sophisticated surveillance it was relatively easy to control the electronic flow of information into and out of the company. Ah, the good old days.

Now, completely new electronic communication methods are leaving business owners and managers befuddled and frustrated in their attempts to address them in the work setting. Social media is a constantly moving target. It has incredible potential as a business development tool but also a much darker side. The potential to destroy reputations, put proprietary information in the wrong hands, and create legal and ethical complications create new challenges for businesses.

Challenging, yes, but as this new technology evolves it is possible to establish a workable Social Media Policy to help you take advantage of the upside and manage the downside of this technological evolution reshaping how we communicate and do business. Each business will need to design a policy based on their unique corporate culture.

So what exactly is a Social Media Policy? A review of more than 100 published policies showed that while they are very diverse, there are repeated themes such as common sense, good judgment, responsibility, confidentiality and staying within legal parameters. The other thing found was a tacit recognition of First Amendment free speech rights, carefully balanced against the rights of companies to protect their reputations and proprietary information.

This is a relatively new field of study but there is a large body of information already published, indicative of the vital importance this issue is taking on in the business community. A recent About.com article on developing social media policies quoted Shama Kabani, author of the Zen of Social Media Marketing and her 10 steps to developing a Social Media Policy, which are as follows:

    Decide where your company stands with respect to their desired relationship with social media. You also need to decide where you stand relative to monitoring employee use of social media too.
  • Determine what constitutes social media
  • As with any offline or online content written, used, received, developed or saved in company owned electronics provided to employees, clarify who owns what.
  • Keep confidential and proprietary information private. Respect the privacy rights of other employees and your customers.
  • Decide who is responsible for managing and participating in social media.
  • Establish ground rules for employee participation in social media.
  • While your employees probably already exercise good common sense while participating online, your social media policy must specifically address examples of taboo topics.
  • Create a system for monitoring the social media sphere.
  • Make training easily available for employees who want to participate in social media.

One of the other real risks inherent in social media is the instant nature of communication. Once the button is pushed the message is out there and it cannot be retrieved. As we all know, Google has a very long memory. Regularly review your policy and maintain an ongoing dialogue with employees so they know what the policy contains and what the consequences for violating the policy will be. It may be that there are already inadvertent policy violations you will need to address. For instance if your company has a policy that only human resources can give references and employees in your company are using sites like LinkedIn you may need to evaluate those LinkedIn recommendations within the context of your current policy.

Although there is no single policy that covers every conceivable issue, the Social Media Policy developed by IBM and published on their web site http://www.ibm.com/blogs/zz/en/guidelines.html offers a good look at the issues to be considered. IBM has more than a little experience in addressing the consequences of technology innovations and while they encourage employee use of social media technology they have also developed a very comprehensive policy to ensure employees follow company guidelines.

It truly isn’t a question of whether or not you need a Social Media Policy because if you have employees and they have access to computers, cell phones or other electronic communication devices you will be faced with these issues sooner or later. The question is really one of what to include and how much monitoring you are willing or able to ensure the policy works for you and your employees.

YPP can assist you with developing your social media policy, so contact your YPP HR Manager or sales@ypp.com

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