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It has never been more crucial to review your company's internal and employee social media policy. In fact, social media and information policies – defining how employees act in an online space – should form a critical part of your company’s official Code of Conduct and HR processes… What do Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart, Velaphi Khumalo and Gareth Cliff have in common? Their social media actions became the subject of extensive South African media coverage in the beginning of the year, landed them in hot water and cost them their jobs. They are not alone though. There are documented cases spanning almost 10 years in which individuals in various positions and from numerous industries around the globe made serious social media faux pas. In almost all cases their posts and videos went viral, to the detriment of both the individual and company concerned. Social media gaffes can take any shape and form, from damaging drunk tweets and personal photographs, to drunken slurs against employers, various forms of hate speech, or a company’s social customer service gone wrong. But they have one thing in common: all of these acts are to the detriment of the guilty party’s employer and/or brand. Everyone’s A Hero Behind A Keyboard Offensive posts not always committed by bad people.  Granted, there are individuals who feel safe to share their bigotry to their closed group of social media followers, but many offenders are generally good people who suffered from a serious lapse in good judgement. In many cases, individuals regret posting offensive posts, photos or videos in hindsight, based on the reaction they receive to a post they originally considered amusing. There are even cases where posters of offensive material suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress after receiving a public lynching for their actions. The biggest issue, however, is that a keyboard and computer or phone screen provide a false sense of security and anonymity. People are prone to post the kind of messages on Social Media that they would never consider writing or saying directly. A good example of this is when a customer aggressively rants on a business social media page – even being abusive and threatening - but becomes calm and cooperative when contacted directly. “Oh, I never expected you to call…” is often the response from an irate customer who can no longer be an anonymous keyboard hero. INTERNAL GUIDELINES From a business perspective, the lines between business and personal social media use are often blurred. A company may have a dedicated social media team but its employees may still talk about the brand in their personal capacity. Creating Policies To Protect All Parties The phrase “everyone’s on social” has become a cliché, but it is an important consideration when adding social media and information policies to your official Code of Conduct. Without these policies in place, it becomes difficult for an employer to define what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. Your Code of Conduct document serves to protect your reputation and minimise any legal issues, and a well-defined rules set will address business vs non-business use, including:
  • Acceptable internet & company email use;
  • The use of mobile devices during work hours – especially in cases where employees are not required to be online – in the interest of maximum productivity;
  • The use of company equipment to access personal social media pages;
  • What employees can and can’t say about their job or employer on their social networks;
  • What is included in your zero tolerance policy (which also carries the harshest penalty, including legal action);
  • Social media engagement that may bring your business into disrepute;
  • Freedom of expression vs offensive, inappropriate or hate speech;
  • How to exercise good judgement (here is a good opportunity to do a practical workshop with your team on phrases that may be considered offensive);
  • The Righteous R’s: Responsibility, Restraint, Respect and Reason;
  • Chain of command: who should answer queries or statements, based on the content;
  • Copyright and crediting the source for any content published;
  • Transparency vs confidentiality, and the protection of confidential and proprietary information.
In crafting this policy, employers should always empower employees to make the right choices. These rules should not be in place to drive fear and discourage employees from being brand advocates. Make your employees (or appointed staff representatives) part of the decision and policy making process. Training Employers and employees should undergo regular social media policy and etiquette workshops, with a separate session for individuals who act on behalf of the business in a social media space. This should ideally be an external process managed by an unbiased facilitator to ensure that the correct procedure is followed by all. Effective social media policies protect both the employer and employee, especially in terms of safeguarding the employee’s freedom of expression. Do not shy away from frank and uncomfortable discussions at this point. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that these training sessions inspire, empower and open dialogue, while breaking down any perceived negativity. Employees often show resistance to new policy introductions, so consider celebrating your new policy with a fun launch instead of a formal boardroom meeting. Policy vs Privacy Can you bring disciplinary action against an employee who posts “I hate my job” on his personal Facebook profile? Can you review a prospective employee’s social media activities as part of your recruitment process? It’s not that simple. Defining what an employee has the right to say in an online space and what an employer may monitor and act on is a sensitive topic. This is where employers must be clear on their legal rights within the Labour Relations Act. As an employer you need to ensure that your social media policies and Code of Conduct are in line with the law. At the same time, you must ensure that your policies are fair but firm and clear, but not seen as unnecessarily punitive. PUBLIC GUIDELINES FOR YOUR SOCIAL NETWORKS It’s not enough to provide rules of engagement for your business; it’s important that you also set clear guidelines for your social media community. As a business, you have the power to dictate how members of the public engage with your brand. Keep these guidelines clear, short and without legalese. The objective is not to discourage engagement, but rather responsible engagement. Simple guidelines include:
  • The definition of acceptable engagement and the kind of posts you welcome;
  • How unacceptable engagement - personal attacks, bullying, profanity or any form of hate speech - will be dealt with (whether the post will be deleted or the guilty party banned);
  • Actions that will result in a user being blocked or banned;
  • Whether you will accept any kind of promotional posts and what they are;
  • How customer service complaints will be directed.
Helpful Resources: Examples of Company & Employee Social Media Policies South African Labour Law and Social Media Policies This article was originally written for Automobil Magazine.
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