Social Media Revisited

The recent headlines on a purported employee of The Home Depot saying she wanted to “randomly kill” a certain group of people, and the storm it caused for The Home Depot got me thinking again about social media. I wrote a blog about three years ago on Social Media Ethics that I believe applies more than ever today, but I want to revisit some of those issues here. It turns out the person making the post was not an employee of The Home Depot, so the crisis management process from The Home Depot was mostly about disclaiming any employment relationship with the person making the statement on social media. But, what if the person had indeed been an employee of The Home Depot? What should a company do at that point?

The key is to lay out up front for your employees what is expected from them when it comes to participating in social media. To that end, your policy should differentiate between posts, tweets, pictures and comments involving your company and your competitors and posts on other subjects.

It is easier to deal with posts about your company and your competitors in a social media policy because there is less concern about getting into free speech issues. Companies have an ethical, and in some cases, legal responsibility to be transparent when it comes to communications from their employees. Is it ethical for your employees to praise the products of your company and not tell the social media world they work for that very same company? Is it appropriate to have every employee of your company be an unofficial spokesperson for the company? Is it acceptable to exaggerate your or your company’s ability to perform?

A good social media policy should tell your employees they must do at least four things when communicating on social media about the company.

  1. Make it clear the comments are coming from someone working for the company.
  2. Make it clear comments are personal opinions, unless you are the official spokesperson for the company.
  3. Be honest, accurate, and acknowledge/correct errors.
  4. Never share non-public information about the company.

Now let’s discuss social media posts that are not about the company. Generally, I believe what an employee does on their own time is their own business and not that of the company. But as The Home Depot case above shows, just because a post does not mention the company, it can still reflect badly on the company if the posts are somehow linked to something that identifies the person as an employee of the company. In many cases like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, a person’s employer is listed as part of their personal profile, so by definition, any posts they make are linked to you as their employer.

So, in addition to the items above your social media policy needs to make it clear that conduct that is prohibited in the workplace (e.g., bullying, harassment, discrimination, retaliation, violent threats) is prohibited in the digital space as well. Let’s face it, if an employee got up in the middle of the store and shouted to all of your customers and fellow employees, “I am going to kill all of you,” you would probably fire that employee on the spot. Just because they do it in social media the offense is no less horrific.

The lesson here is to get a social media policy in place and make it clear that it covers more than just posts about the company. Your social media policy also needs to cover any posts that are linked back to you as an employer. If you do that, maybe employees will think twice before they post a terrible comment. And, if they don’t, dealing with situations may be at least a little bit easier because you already made the rules clear up front.

Oh, and once again for the record, I am an employee of AT&T and all opinions in these blogs are my own and not those of AT&T.

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