Organizations looking to protect their brand often keep a close eye on the ways their job candidates and employees behave on social media. In fact, social media background checks do a great job of helping employers spot job candidates and employees who post illegal or offensive content online.
However, to best protect your organization from harmful social media posts, you’ll want to create clear guidelines explaining how your employees should use social media. Doing so will set concrete expectations for employee behavior and reduce the likelihood of an employee saying brand-damaging (though not necessarily illegal) things online.
What’s a Social Media Policy?
A social media policy is a set of guidelines or rules regarding how your employees may use social media. The goal of a social media policy is to set expectations about what behaviors, on both personal and professional social profiles, are acceptable — and which may result in a negative employment action (like being fired).
Every organization will need to work to develop a unique policy that makes most sense for them, since there are a variety of factors that should be considered during the creation of guidelines.
Who Needs a Social Media Policy?
In short: everyone.
If you have employees on social media, you need a social media policy.
What your employees say or post on social media may reflect poorly on your organization — even if the content they post has nothing to do with it. For example, a popular website took heat when it was discovered one of their contractors was posting racist messages on Instagram. The contractor wasn’t posting about their employer, but it didn’t matter: their employer took it as an act of discrimination, and swiftly terminated their relationship.
Of course, what most organizations are worried about are brand-damaging social media posts that are somehow related to their organization — like the MLB stadium concession employee who posted a video on Facebook and Twitter of himself spitting into food he was preparing to serve. (The employee was subsequently fired and arrested).
Bad social media behavior can impact any organization. That’s why getting ahead of it by clearly communicating expectations is so important.
Considerations When Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Company
The guidelines set in an organization’s social media policy will differ per organization.
Before we share examples of social media policies, let’s first talk about what to consider before you create yours:
- What types of social media posts are ground for negative consequences? For example, you may feel comfortable with your employees using occasional profanity on social media but consider racist language grounds for termination.
- How big is your organization’s presence on social media? Do you have 3 million followers on Twitter, or do you not even have a Facebook page? While every organization should have a social media policy — even if their brand doesn’t have a social presence — the stakes are typically higher for those that have many people following their social accounts.
- What is considered acceptable employee social media activity in your industry? If you’re in healthcare, for example, consider how an employee posting about their job could result in HIPPA violations.
- What amount of restrictions around social media will your employees tolerate? Strict rules dictating what an employee can say online may be seen as censorship.
It’s also critical to remember that some employee speech on social media is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. For example, an employer may not penalize an employee for discussing their working conditions on social media.
Example Social Media Policies
Since every company will need to develop a unique social media policy template, let’s look at some real-life examples to see how other organizations regulate their employees’ use of social media.
While each of the examples below is different and tailored toward the needs to each company, you’ll notice a few recurring themes:
- Don’t share proprietary company information
- Use common sense when posting online
- When necessary, disclose your affiliation with the company
Coco-cola employees are encouraged to use social media but are reminded to use common sense while doing so. Below are some of the highlights of Coca-Cola’s social media policy:
- “Our Company’s Information Protection Policy, Insider Trading Policy, and other policies still apply.
- You are responsible for your actions. We encourage you to get online and have fun, but use sound judgment and common sense.
- You are an important ambassador for our Company’s brands, and you’re encouraged to promote them as long as you make sure you disclose that you are affiliated with the Company. How you disclose can depend on the platform, but the disclosure should be clear and in proximity to the message itself.
- When you see posts or commentary on topics that require subject matter expertise, such as ingredients, obesity, the Company’s environmental impacts, or the Company’s financial performance, avoid the temptation to respond to these directly unless you respond with approved messaging the Company has prepared for those topics. When in doubt, contact your local Public Affairs and Communications director.
- Be conscientious when mixing your business and personal lives; be sure to know your work group’s policies regarding personal use of social media at work or on Company devices.”
Nordstrom’s social media employee guidelines emphasize the protection of customers’ privacy and respect for others. Below are some highlights of their policy:
- “Don’t post sensitive, private or confidential company information (e.g., unannounced product launches and promotions, internal sales results, company strategy, pricing information or comparisons).
- Respect customer privacy. Never give out personal customer information (e.g., personal addresses, phone numbers or credit card information) or add information you receive from social networking to Personal Book or other Nordstrom tools.
- Don’t post photos of or make negative comments about our customers and do not share details about customer visits—both private and public figures—without their permission (unless it is a marketed personal appearance for the Company).
- Don’t post comments about a coworker, customer or vendor that could be perceived as harassing, threatening, retaliatory or discriminatory.
- Comply with our Guidelines for Endorsers (see “Guidelines for Endorsers” on Nordstrom.com) by disclosing your Nordstrom affiliation and noting that the views expressed are your own.”
- Mayo Clinic
The Mayo Clinic’s social media guidelines carefully explain how employees and students are expected to conduct themselves on social media, including rules about connecting with patients on social media and endorsing products or organizations. Highlights of the policy include:
- Follow all applicable Mayo Clinic policies. For example, you must not share confidential or proprietary information about Mayo Clinic and you must maintain patient privacy. Among the policies most pertinent to this discussion are those concerning patient confidentiality, government affairs, mutual respect, political activity, Computer, E-mail & Internet Use, the Mayo Clinic Integrity Program, photography and video, and release of patient information to media.
- Write in the first person. Where your connection to Mayo Clinic is apparent, make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of Mayo Clinic. In those circumstances, you should include this disclaimer: “The views expressed on this [blog; website] are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.” Consider adding this language in an “About me” section of your blog or social media profile.
- If you identify your affiliation to Mayo Clinic, your social media activities should be consistent with Mayo’s high standards of professional conduct.
- If you communicate in the public internet about Mayo Clinic or Mayo Clinic-related matters, you must disclose your connection with Mayo Clinic and your role at Mayo.
- Be professional, use good judgment and be accurate and honest in your communications; errors, omissions or unprofessional language or behavior reflect poorly on Mayo, and may result in liability for you or Mayo Clinic. Be respectful and professional to fellow employees, business partners, competitors and patients.
- Mayo Clinic strongly discourages “friending” of patients on social media websites. Staff in patient care roles generally should not initiate or accept friend requests except in unusual circumstances such as the situation where an in-person friendship pre-dates the treatment relationship.
- Mayo Clinic does not endorse people, products, services and organizations. Official Mayo Clinic accounts should not be used to provide such endorsements. For personal social media accounts where your connection to Mayo Clinic is apparent, you should be careful to avoid implying that an endorsement of a person or product is on behalf of Mayo Clinic, rather than a personal endorsement.”
As the above examples show, organizations in different industries have different needs for their policies. While the Mayo Clinic discouraging employees from “friending” patients on social media, there would be no need for Nordstrom to prohibit their employees from “friending” customers. That’s why it’s so important to think through not just high-level social media guidelines, like to use common sense or not share proprietary information, but to think about how employees actually use social media in the real world.