It's no secret that we live in a hyper-connected world where the Internet has become an essential tool for business, and where social-media platforms have become an indispensable mechanism for doing everything from communicating with customers to promoting brands.
Nowadays many employees—particularly 20- and 30-something Generation Ys—have either grown up with social media or have integrated it into every aspect of their work and personal lives. For them, it's not just a tool to connect with friends, it's a go-to medium to educate and express themselves. That attachment offers huge opportunities to employers hoping to capitalize on the business benefits of the medium—particularly to sell more and grow faster.
But it also presents huge challenges. Since the mid-2000s, employers have been struggling to find ways to reasonably accommodate workers who live and breathe Facebook and Twitter, while still maintaining peak productivity levels. And many employers have turned to social media—particularly LinkedIn—to investigate employees' qualifications or even suitability for a position (think of those bosses who use job candidates' drunken Facebook photos to make hiring decisions).
There have even been reported cases of employers demanding staffers' Facebook passwords to check up on their whereabouts or off-duty activities. It's clear that there's a fine line between balancing employee privacy with the need to defend a company's online integrity.
With that in mind, here are ways to help your company manage workplace social media use:
DO assess the strategic value of social media for your company before implementing any policies governing its use. Is it a worthwhile tool for communicating with customers, providing better customer service or helping attract new clients? Are any of your prospective clients actually on social media, and if so, which channels? How can you best leverage it to your advantage? Can you use social media tools to help drive revenue and growth?
DON'T dismiss social media due to the potential workplace legal pitfalls. Every HR law challenge can be mitigated through proactive policy design. That being said...
DO develop specific workplace policies for social media use. Remember to outline policies on the kind of content that's acceptable for employees to post, and the acceptable number of work hours they should spend doing it. And focus on the positive. Employees typically view such policies as barriers to engaging in an otherwise normal activity in their everyday lives. Build policies based on common sense that emphasize what employees can do to help build your brand with social media.
DO create incentives for employees who use social media to provide great customer service or attract new sales leads.
DON'T discipline an employee for social-media usage during work hours if his activity didn't harm your business. In cases where an employee has gone overboard with his Facebook status updates, issue a warning and give him the benefit of the doubt. Then be sure to adjust your social media usage policy if necessary. Remember that unnecessary punitive action can be a workplace engagement killer—the exact opposite of what your social media policies should be promoting.
DO treat it as a business tool and remind employees that you'll be monitoring their activity—and that any action disparaging the company could result in termination of employment. By incorporating social-media usage guidelines into policies—such as your confidentiality agreements and codes of conduct—you send a clear message to staff that you'll hold them responsible for using these tools inappropriately.
DON'T breach your employees's reasonable rights to privacy. It should go without saying, but asking for a job candidate's or existing staffer's Facebook passwords to access their account could expose you to liability. For example, job candidates could allege that they weren't hired because their profiles revealed a disability. This is also a surefire way to alienate employees.
DO adhere to the social-media policies you create and ensure that they're applied fairly and consistently across your company. If your policies haven't been consistently applied, there is a very good chance that a judge will side with an employee who challenges his or her termination for improper social-media usage.
DON'T simply ban social-media usage in the workplace because you think it's easier than following the steps mentioned above. Outright prohibition is unrealistic and difficult to enforce, and it could cost your company business opportunities. It also creates a culture of deception. Like it or not, when it comes to social media, employees will almost always find a way to re-Tweet that "hilarious" new memo or update their Facebook status during work hours.
Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years' experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.
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