Social Business Requires A Formal Policy

Do your organization's employees know what they can and cannot say on Facebook and other social media? Time for some basic governance.
The National Labor Relations Board released a report in August on workplace usage of social media. It determined that employees can't be fired for what they say on social media as long as they use their chosen platform to talk about improving their workplace.

The ruling stemmed from an incident last year, when an employee from the non-profit Hispanic United of Buffalo, which provides social services to people with low incomes, complained about a co-worker on her Facebook wall, accusing the co-worker of slacking off at the office. Other colleagues chimed in with some nasty comments. Management eventually found out about the Facebook discussion and fired the five employees who participated in it. The case was then heard by an administrative law judge, who ruled that the employees had the right, under the National Labor Relations Act, to conduct their Facebook discussion and ordered the non-profit to reinstate them with back pay.

There has been widespread confusion about what workers can and cannot post on social media, leading to a surge of more than 100 complaints to the NLRB in the past year. According to a study by DLA Piper, one third of employers have disciplined employees for something they posted on social media, and 21% have issued employees a warning. Yet only a quarter of the businesses in the DLA Piper study have a social media policy.

Governance certainly addresses more than just employees and their behavior on social media; but here's a quick overview of how to approach this issue.

A social media policy is a legal document, usually prepared by a company's legal department. It explicitly highlights what employees can and cannot do or say on the social Web. A policy usually addresses compliance issues, professionalism, and the need to avoid making promises on behalf of the business and avoid sharing confidential information about the business, its products, partners, and customers. Most policies remind employees that they're responsible for what they post and can be held liable.

Guidelines are different from policies. Guidelines are sometimes referred to as "rules of engagement" and suggest how employees interact with the external community. Years ago, before the Oracle acquisition, Sun Microsystems' guidelines simply read "don't be stupid," and the company was well known for having thousands of bloggers participating in online conversations.

Guidelines might publicly address moderation for Facebook and other external communities and encourage employees to participate in conversations where they can actually add value. Smart companies are co-creating guidelines with their employees and posting them for outsiders to read.

Governance around employee engagement determines who is allowed to engage in social media with outside parties. Intel, for example, lets all employees, regardless of job function, participate in social media as long as they complete certain training modules. They're then considered a Social Media Practitioner and are offered more advanced training if they want it. Intel has also posted its social media guidelines publicly.

More conservative organizations may select just a handful of employees, unleash them on the Web in a pilot program, and then monitor the results. Regardless of the approach, ongoing training is needed, since the social media landscape changes almost daily.

Nonetheless, establish a process for new or existing employees who aren't in marketing and who want to engage with customers, suppliers, and partners in social media. The process needs to cover the steps to get approved and when and where the training is. Most organizations involve their HR and internal communications teams, and they include this information in new-employee orientation documents and on the company intranet.

Does your company have a clear social media governance policy?

Michael Brito is a senior VP of social business planning at Edelman Digital, where he provides strategic counsel, guidance, and best practices to several top global tech accounts. Michael just finished writing his first social business book, "Smart Business, Social Business: A Playbook for Social Media in Your Organizations." Contact him at [email protected]

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