When employees go wild on social media

A good question from one of my students:

During the lecture you touched on the topic of “control” in social media.  But in any company internal as well as external conflicts are usually unavoidable and that can trigger posts and tweets which can affect the reputation of the company. How do companies assure that their employees uphold the reputation of the company and prevent scandals?

I guess the short answer is, “don’t have scandals.”  : )

I imagine that company managers had the same conversation when the first telephone arrived. “How will we control our communications? What if something bad is said over the phone lines?  Is privacy over? Can’t our employees steal our information and spread it anywhere with one phone call?”

The evolution

When email arrived (yes, I remember this) my boss fought it tooth and nail. He wanted everything on paper — documented — and saw this development as the inevitable end of employee discretion and the precursor to an era of scandal (and in some ways it was!)

At each stage of our technological evolution, business leaders have had to adapt and adopt. This is no different. Social media is an evolution in how we communicate.  We can’t control the message just like you couldn’t control an employee phone call or email message.  And yes, employee communications on social media can be subjective, unexpected and even unfair.  So is life.

Businesses are going to have to learn to deal with it, as they always have.  Social media is like a Darwinian catalyst which will force rapid change in many company functions. It will expose the rocks of the company culture and possibly highlight uncomfortable vulnerabilities.  In some ways this is a gift. The companies with the best ability to adapt and adopt will certainly have an advantage in the long-term.

Step one

The first step is to have a meaningful social media policy. Employees should understand the company’s positions, policies and consequences. But it also must be a living document and associated with relevant employee training. The policy should be reviewed by a steering committee every six months to make sure it still reflects reality and that it is doing its job. It should be part of employee training and on-boarding just like any policy to guide the appropriate use of technology.

If your company does not have a social media policy, here is a website with hundreds of public examples: http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php  Maybe one of them will fit for you.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t understand social media. They are still trying to control messages and employees in unrealistic ways.  Look, even if you OUTLAW social media activity, its still going to happen over personal smartphones on coffee breaks. So be realistic and fair.

It’s going to happen

Here’s the best example I’ve seen to explain why EVERY organization needs a social media policy. A local television station was promoting a college scholarship competition on its website.  A student posted on the station’s Facebook page claiming that the contest was rigged. A teacher responded to the student, wondering if he was just upset because he had been suspended from school that week.


The teacher had violated the student’s privacy in a very public way. Now, her post was not on a social media site belonging to her, the student or the school. It was on her time and on her computer. And yet she ended up being suspended from her job and the school was red-faced because they had no social media policy in place.

Most of the social media pundits will say that if you don’t trust your employees to use social media you have a hiring problem, not a social media problem.  I think that is a bit naive and idealistic. You know what folks?  Shit happens. Teachers make mistakes. Employees get pissed.  Unions go on strike at even the best-managed companies.  Employees go crazy over personal stuff that may have nothing to do with their jobs. And if they take out their frustrations on social media, it doesn’t mean the company has a hiring problem.

So just like any other HR issue, you need to have a well-communicated policy which explains the consequences when an employee drags its employer into a mess.

Right?  What has your experience been?

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