Tips for Updating Your Company’s Social Media Policy

As social media continues to evolve, it’s important for us to keep up with the changes. Back in 2009, Mashable published one of the first articles about what to include in a social media policy. It is still relevant today, but social media has changed.

This year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued three reports regarding social media in the workplace. The last one was specifically focused on social media policies.

What the Reports Say

Jon Hyman, partner in the labor and employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz P.L.L. and author of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, provides a brief overview of these three NLRB reports. “The first two reports focus primarily on what is, and what is not, protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In summary, the NLRA gives all private-sector employees (whether or not in a labor union) the right to engage in protected concerted activity — to talk between and among themselves about wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment.”

The third report was unique in that it focused on social media policies. Hyman explains the big takeaway for employers in the report. “It is very difficult for a business to craft a social media policy with any substance behind it that will pass muster with the NLRB’s Office of General Counsel. The NLRB’s position on social media policies remains an absolute mess.

Employers need to be able to adopt bright line rules to guide their employees towards proper conduct. Yet, this report puts employers in the dangerous position of being fearful of drawing even the simplest of lines. The result is that businesses will be fearful of adopting any rules, creating online anarchy among their employees.”

Sample Social Media Policies

Organizations can’t let policy changes stop them from moving forward. Instead they need to remain complaint, educate employees and build the brand all at the same time. Eliot Johnson, senior manager of global social media at KPMG, a global network of independent firms providing advisory, audit and tax services, shared the company’s philosophy regarding employee use of social media. “At KPMG, social media is as much about the individual as it is about the brand. Empowering 145,000 partners and employees to use social media across our global network demonstrates our vision of enabling the business through our people. It is important that we recognize the business value of social media in order to connect with clients, employees and the media. If we are successful, we expect to see a shift in the digital behavior of our people and more broadly a shift in our corporate culture.”

KPMG recently created a video social media policy. Johnson shared the strategy behind the video: “As part of our global social media strategy, we’ve created a series of foundational materials to enable our global network, one of which was the social media guidelines. There was much debate about whether this should be a policy or a set of guidelines. In the end we chose the latter given there were already policies in place; particularly with regards to client confidentiality, protection of intellectual property and our brand.” Johnson said the response to the video has been very positive.

Heather Bussing, an employment and business attorney specializing in training and preventative advice, pointed out the NLRB did find that Walmart’s social policy was acceptable because it only restricted behavior that was already covered by other laws, such as trade secrets, harassment and defamation. “The NLRB also liked the Walmart policy because it gave specific examples of conduct that would be improper while not interfering with employees talking to each other about work. You can read the NLRB report and see the Walmart policy here.”

But Bussing added a word of caution. “Don’t just copy the Walmart policy. It has other problems like allowing the employer to discipline employees for off-duty conduct, which is illegal in some states, including California. Also, the specificity applauded by the NLRB creates a level of control over employee conduct that can actually increase, rather than decrease, an employer’s liability for things that their employees say and do in social media. This is especially true for the Walmart policy because it prohibits use of social media at work. This means that the entire policy is designed to control employee conduct away from work on their own time and on their personal social media accounts.  Employers aren’t usually responsible for things employees do away from work — until they start to try to control it, then they are.”

Protecting the Company Brand

One of the primary reasons employers create social media policies is to control messaging. There can be fears that employees are going to start trash-talking the company and hurt the company culture and brand. Bussing reminds us there’s no real way to stop current or former employees from trash-talking, and companies probably shouldn’t even try. She explains, “It just creates a culture of monitoring and suspicion. Discipline, denials and drama just make it worse. Social media is fast-moving, and things pop up and die quickly if they are ignored.”

Want to know the best way to encourage employees to say great things about you? According to Bussing, “Be a great employer with a great service or product.”

Hyman agrees. “The answer lies not in a policy (although companies should have social media policies and train their employees on appropriate online use), but in harnessing the power that social media offers. Every business should realize social media is all about transparency. Be transparent in your dealings with your employees’ online activities, and you will avoid the public relations disasters that many businesses are facing via their social media responses. The viral risk of bad response is much greater than the risk of one rogue employee.”

Social Media Training

Any time a company implements a new policy or changes an existing one, some kind of communication must take place. This allows employees to understand why the changes are being made and ask questions. It gives the company the ability to set expectations and hold people accountable. Bussing recommends starting with a discussion about what’s important to the company.

“Figure out what you are trying to protect. Then do training to remind employees of their professional responsibilities and that those responsibilities apply on social media too. Chances are, the policies most employers have on trade secrets, disclosure of confidential information, discrimination and harassment already cover what employees are doing on social media.

If it is protecting trade secrets, avoiding SEC violations or protecting employee safety, start there. Remind or teach employees what a trade secret is, what defamation is, or why checking in on Foursquare as you make the bank deposit is a really bad idea. Explain why any restrictions in the policy is important to the company. Telling people why something matters gives them the ability to use their judgment when they come up against a situation you haven’t covered. Then, trust people to do the right thing. If they don’t, deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Focus on what happened, not whether a policy was violated.”

Keeping Your Social Media Policy Current

Whether your company is drafting their first social media policy or revising an existing one, at some point, businesses must consider how they will keep the information current. KPMG created a global oversight working group comprised of stakeholders (i.e. marketing, risk management, legal, IT, human resources, etc.) to create the policy and monitor the guidelines. Johnson says, “The group will meet on a monthly basis to review cases that contravene the guidelines, and discuss appropriate remedies. We will then meet every six months to review the guidelines and update them as appropriate.” He adds, “Given how quickly the landscape shifts in social media, we need to ensure the guidance we provide is timely and relevant.”

Know Why Your Policy Exists

Bottom line, companies should create policies for a business-related reason. There’s a difference between having a social media problem and a management problem.

Social media policies can offer guidance and consistency. In order to be effective, they must be created with the buy-in of stakeholders, communicated to employees and updated as the world of work changes.