Whether it’s LinkedIn or Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or some other form of social media, people are making their private lives public on an international scale and with the line blurring between private and public lives, the distinction between work life and personal life is also becoming less clear. In some cases this can be a win for businesses in terms of free promotion online but it also exposes companies to risk and possibly disastrous situations.

So how should business owners and managers navigate this somewhat new and ever-expanding world?

How much can or should an organisation influence or control what an employee does in their private life?

Just on Facebook alone there are more than 15 million Australian users each month so if you’re an employer, some of your employees are almost certainly using some form of social media. Everyone likes a good story but it seems that a negative story can spread at a faster pace with just a few clicks, likes and shares. For businesses and their brands it can mean that a bad story/comment/post can spiral seemingly out of control in the online world. Often (but certainly not always) it isn’t the employee who will have to face the ramifications, but the employer, even if the actions of the employee happens outside of the workplace and outside of work hours.

In order to try to reap the benefits of social media within your workforce and to minimise or eliminate the chances of any activity tuning sour, it’s important to make your organisation’s expectations clear and to provide a clear guide or to create detailed policies on the responsible use of social media. Providing specialised training on appropriate usage is also highly recommended.

Protecting Yourself with Social Media Policies

Your social media policies should cover your work-related social media interactions so that employees have no doubts as to what is and what isn’t acceptable. This should include a definition on appropriate and reasonable usage so that there’s no confusion between work and play online. The policies should encourage employees to be responsible, respectful and professional on social media at all times, making it clear that social media usage outside of work hours and the workplace is still as impactful as when it’s used onsite within a working day. Employees should be aware that social media is the same as publishing and realise how it can benefit the organisation as well as how it can be of harm. Some organisations even outline which of the social media platforms they feel are appropriate for work purposes. There is also the possibility for companies to have official social media accounts and to restrict usage to those accounts only, sometimes having only specific employee access to maintain greater control.

It’s important to think about your business and the kinds of interactions your team can have with your customer base. On one occasion I had a client who wanted in their social media policy that team members weren’t to accept Facebook friend requests from customers. The reason is they didn’t want (at any level) to have any conflicts of interest or compromise between employees and customers.

Within a social media policy, employees should be made aware of what can happen if there is a breach of policy and the consequences of any social media usage that is deemed as misconduct. The disciplinary action may be anything from a warning in minor cases to more extreme cases which may result in termination. Employers may be entitled to take disciplinary action if behaviour on social media damages the employer's brand or reputation, damages trust in the employment relationship or conflicts in some way with the employee's duties to their employer.

When Little Post Become Big Incidents…

Many people use social media to vent when they have an issue in their lives but when an employee has an issue with their employer, that small post can have big ramifications to the point where employees can get terminated. There was a landmark social media case that went through Fair Work in 2011 (O’Keefe v The Good Guys), where an employee was upset due to a problem with payroll in which he wasn’t paid his commission for several weeks. On his day off, the employee posted a comment, with expletives and indirect threats, saying, to paraphrase, that the people at his work got his pay wrong again and that there will be trouble because of it. His posting was set to the maximum privacy settings allowable on Facebook (although he admitted late in the court proceedings that the employee, whilst he only had 70 Facebook friends, 11 of them were colleagues and could see his comments). Management found out about the comment and dismissed the employee. The employee made a claim against his employer, citing unfair dismissal but Fair Work Australia found that the dismissal was fair and warranted. Fair Work stated, "The fact that the comments were made on the applicant's home computer, out of work hours, does not make any difference”. Fortunately for the employer, all employee conduct expectations, both online and offline, were clearly stated in the employer’s policies.

Social Media Best Practices – A Few Quick Tips

– Know who your audience are and what they want to see

– Educate your staff on your social media policy

– Remember that ‘end users’ are real people so interact and engage with them in a human way

– Define your networks and themes and keep to it, always remaining consistent

– Have a detailed action plan with dates and types of posts

– Stay up to date with your competitors’ social media activities

– Monitor the results and impact of your posts and keep track of when you are mentioned in other posts (including any posts from employees, clients or associates)

When social media is used well by businesses and employees, and within a tight framework, it can build your brand, improve customer relationships, create brand ambassadors, set people up as experts and boost sales.

If you need any help with developing, maintaining or enforcing social media policies in your business, feel free to give us a call.

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners.

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