The ground rules: creating a social media policy

Some employers may wish to limit employees’ use of social media in the workplace while others will want to exploit its business advantages to the full. Whatever the approach, whether an outright ban, limited use or open access, it is essential employers protect themselves, their organisation and their employees by establishing a clear policy on use of social media in the workplace.

This may not be straightforward. Where the traditional approach was for an approved communication manager regulating access to official communication channels, this has now largely been replaced by comments on social networks.

Institute of Employment Studies research highlighted difficulties some employers have faced in setting standards of behaviour for employees when using social media, advising that employers should take a ‘common sense’ approach to influencing how employees behave online, and that organisations should treat behaviour online as they would treat any other behaviour in the workplace.

As social media expert Kate Rose says: “It’s relatively simple to define what you shouldn’t do on Twitter or Facebook – it pretty much boils down to good manners, the same professional standards you would apply in the office, and avoiding a handful of sensitive topics.” Or in the succinct seven-word social media policy of one highly successful online US brand: “Be real, and use your best judgement.” Acas says employers must make a clear distinction between business and private use of social media. Where limited private use is permitted, employers should explain what this means and be clear about the limitations.

Write it down

Many good corporate social media policies are no more than a page long, and by clearly setting out its social media policy an organisation can significantly reduce the risks of inappropriate or unlawful activity. A written social media policy makes it clear what employees can say or not say about their employer, colleagues or about any aspect of its business. The policy should help employees understand the line between the different standards that may apply in their personal lives and at work. Importantly, a written policy could help give employers some defence against liability for breaches of the law for any inappropriate use, particularly in areas like discrimination, data protection or even health and safety.

Understanding limits

The policy should help an employee make the best safe and legal use of social media. Employees should know what’s acceptable and where the limits are. A clear understanding of the rules and any disciplinary action that will be taken if the rules are broken will benefit everyone. To keep pace with this rapidly evolving environment, the policy must be regularly reviewed and amended where appropriate, using (of course) social media to communicate the very latest policy update.

Clear guidelines

Employers must advise employees about intellectual property,defamation, financial disclosure and other relevant regulations, and it is essential employees have clear guidelines about what they can disclose about the organisation. Some encourage all employees to blog and tweet, provided they promote positive – or constructive – images of the organisation. Employees also need to be clear about how far they are allowed to offer their own opinions, balanced by employers’ awareness of the risks involved using everyone’s voice to represent the organisation. Put simply, employees must show responsibility, discipline and to stay within the law.

Use of social media in a private capacity

Employees’ personal use of social media can be a difficult area, and some organisations’ social media policy may include clauses that say that while not acting officially on behalf of the organisation, employees must be aware that they can affect the organisation if they are recognised as being an employee.

Employers must take a grown-up view and accept it is perfectly normal for employees to discuss their work on social media sometimes. However, the social media policy could say an employee’s online profile should – when discussing work – include a statement that says something like: “the views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer”.

There’s a whole host of areas that could bring the organisation into disrepute by association, and these should be outlined in the policy. For example, The Nursing and Midwifery Council recently revamped its professional code, which includes guidelines on online conduct: “what you do in your free time must not harm the nursing profession... You are never off-duty... it’s a 24/7 job...” This comes after a case of a nurse making jokes about patients. “The guide does not pass moral judgment, but aims to avoid damaging public confidence in nursing...”

If all this seems daunting, particularly to an SME, there’s a huge amount of help and guidance online on what exactly should be included in a social media policy. For example, the Acas website (www.acas.org.uk) includes a page Social media and how to develop a policy.