Does Your Social Media Policy Go Too Far?

social media policyOK, those who read this blog know I’m a strong advocate of a social media policy, but where does a social media policy end and infringement on civil rights (freedom of speech, for instance) or even human rights begin?

Social media has somewhat blurred the distinction between an employee and a person. Business practice, at least in the US and Northern Europe (to a lesser extent) has always held that you don’t “mix business and pleasure”. In other words, you don’t bring your personal life to work and you don’t take your work home. This business practice is less common in Southern Europe and the Middle East, where business people commonly invite business contacts into their personal space.

But, as I mentioned, social media brings these two world together. Effective social media must be authentic, which means you share something of your person in social media posts and your business invades your personal social media, to an extent. For instance, I have students and colleagues as friends on Facebook and connections on LinkedIn. I’ve even had business contacts related to my university contact me on my personal profile to invite me to learn more about getting an MBA (of course, I already have an MBA and a PhD).

Should your social media policy accept this blurring?

The answer is YES, but often social media policies totally stifle any unauthorized communication between employees and others on social networks. But, where does the right of the organization to protect its online reputation end and the rights of the employee to freedom of speech begin?

A recent case highlights this question. In Louisiana, a reporter was fired after repeated (courteous) responses to racial slurs posted on the station’s Facebook page. Here’s an example of one of the racial comments posted:

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Not to start any trouble, because I think that the annual ‘Three Minute Smile’ is a great function and I love to see kids so happy. Am I the only one that has noticed that this year, all the kids, lets say, are people of color? This is Channel 3, not KSLA, the ‘Project Pride’ network, that might as well be part of the BET Channel. Did KTBS slip up on a news story, and owe S’port’s criminal mayor Cedric, a favor? Seems like some racism going on to me. Just saying…..

To which, the African-American reporter responded:

I’m not sure I understand your comment, ‘…this is Channel 3 not KSLA…’ What are you trying to say?

The children are picked at random. So there goes your theory that they are selected for their color. I would like to think it doesn’t matter who the child is. If you truly just want to see the kids happy your message had a funny way of showing it.

Happy holidays.—Met. Rhonda Lee

What’s wrong with the social media policy?

1. Civil rights violation

The application of the social media policy to courteous responses to repeated racial attacks on the individual reporter and her actions at the station seems unfounded. The courts will likely find the dismissal violates federal statutes and force reinstatement and back pay for the reporter — at a significant cost to the organization.

The attorney for Ms. Lee will likely argue the Facebook comments represent a hostile work environment that the organization supported through tacit acceptance of the comments. Further, gagging employees not only violates 1st amendment rights (which I doubt news organizations want to fight), but cost the organization an important marketing tool in the form of employee lead communities that bind consumers to the brand – although I don’t think the lawyer will make that part of the argument.

2. Prior notification

The company did not adequately inform employees of the social media policy and penalties for violating the policy. In this case, the company argues it informed employees of the policy in a meeting (which Ms. Lee failed to attend) and in an email. This seems pretty thin to me.

We encourage businesses who purchase our social media policy to send each employee to training regarding elements of the social media policy. This training culminates in a short quiz to ensure employees understand key aspects of the social media policy, including sanctions for violations, and requires employees who pass the quiz to sign a statement of their understanding and agreement with the social media policy. Without this certification, a company’s position in court is much weaker when an employee challenges the policy.

3. Comments on personal social networks?

How does your policy treat comments made on an employee’s personal social network? In my case, I was censured for writing back that the individual who sent me a “personal” invitation to learn about our MBA program should have done a little homework and discovered that, not only did I already HAVE an MBA, but I teach in the very MBA program she was selling. I actually think the correct response SHOULD be to fire the employee or agency making such blunders as it reflects poorly on the reputation of the university and may just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of damage caused though incorrect use of social media by the university.

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