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I remember being told, years and years ago now, to remember that anything I say on the internet, it’s like I stood on on a street corner yelling it to anyone who walked past while someone else recorded it for posterity. Maybe not the most elegant metaphor ever, but still pretty apt, and that was said long before social media was even a theoretical idea. Not only are we all standing on the proverbial street corner yelling about things all day, but so are your employees, much to the potential terror of some companies. So if you know your employees are using social media, and of course they are, how do you keep that from turning into a potential public relations or corporate security nightmare?

Have a policy in place

It’s good to know in advance how you’ll handle it if you do find yourself in a social media spawned pickle, but it’s better to avoid it in the first place. By having a clear, well-documented social media policy for your employees in place, you can significantly cut back on the likelihood that they’ll accidentally say something they shouldn’t. Things like “don’t talk about what happens behind closed doors at work on social media” may seem common sense enough to not need to be explicitly stated, but you can’t take that for granted, especially with employees who are less experienced with business etiquette or less social media savvy. Even if you think your employees know better, take the time to have a specific policy, on record and in writing, and have everyone in the organization review and agree to it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as grandma’s needlepoint said. And whatever policy you have, remember that it’s only as strong as it’s enforcement, so take it seriously and enforce it fairly across the board.

Be realistic about limitations

Unless you work for a government contractor doing R&D or something similarly requiring high level security clearance, setting the expectation of “never talk about work or tell people where you work or use your full name on anything that can be tracked back to where you work” is asking for disappointment. “What do you do?” is standard small talk in our society, for better worse, and on social media, Facebook flat out asks you where you work and finds you coworkers who have accounts. Obviously that’s not to say that you can’t in any way ask employees to limit what they put on social media, or why even bother having a policy? Asking employees not to self-disclose where they work if they’re going to discuss products or services, or even asking them just to not mention any specifics about work or where they work, is entirely reasonable and most people wouldn’t blink at that type of restriction. What you want to stay away from is being excessively concerned with run of the mill comments like “customers were ridiculous today!” or “I got the coolest thing at work today” or similar, day to day comments or even complaints. Your policy and the way it’s enforced shouldn’t put the business in a position of constantly policing every employees’ social media use and endlessly reprimanding people.

Know that different types of employees may have different requirements

Consistent, across the board policy is generally your best place to start, but it’s just not logical in most cases to hold mostly publicly anonymous employees to the same standards as an executive or a PR advisor who is in some way a face of the company. Your average employee probably doesn’t need more limitations than not publicly disclosing their employment status if they’re going to discuss the company, but someone whose name is associated with the company as a member of the board or someone who has made public statements on behalf of the company are pretty much always going to be taken as a representative of the organization, whether they’re discussing something entirely on what they consider “personal” time or not. There have been a number of high profile instances in recent years of people making racist or sexist statements on their personal Twitter accounts and it costing them their jobs, but they key here is that they were people who acted as a representative of the company in some way. Most customers aren’t going to be especially concerned with the bigoted ideology of an individual employee, but they are going to be if the person in question is in some way representative of or in control of a company. If the cashier at my grocery store said similar things on Twitter or Facebook, I wouldn’t want to befriend that person, but I wouldn’t take it as representative of the company and I wouldn’t feel that giving that company my business was furthering that ideology. If it’s an executive or a corporate mouth piece though, as a consumer I have to think twice what that says about the company as a whole and whether that rot has spread from the top down.

Don’t force participation

The other side of the spectrum when it comes to executives, don’t force them to participate in social media if they aren’t interested. If they can do it effectively, that’s a great potential asset, but if not, it’s stress you don’t need and potentially more harm than good. People who aren’t interested in having a social media presence, in engaging with customers and the public in that way, and who doesn’t want to take the time to understand how to manage it appropriately is a potential liability waiting to happen. In a large organization you have certainly got a person or two at least at the executive level who is savvy about this sort of thing, and it’s best to just leave it to them.

Keep up with changes

Keep your policy and your expectations general enough to be flexible as new social media networks pop up and existing ones revamp and add features. Things are inevitably going to crop up that you hadn’t planned as technology and trends change, but the core of your policy should be broad enough to handle most things, and flexible enough to adapt as needed. With executives, revisit what they may be interested in participating in periodically. A CEO who isn’t interested in Twitter but is an avid amateur photographer, for example, may take to Instagram. Not all networks are the same and not everyone is or should have to be on all of them, so take advantage of the opportunity to play to people’s strengths and interests.

Social media can be a great asset, but more importantly it simply is the reality of how people interact and socialize now, and business must keep up and adapt as needed. You’re not being draconian to have a clear policy in place, and in fact it can save you a lot of headaches, and make employees more comfortable knowing where they stand. Is there a social media horror or success story we might not have heard? Please take a minute and share in the comments, and thanks for reading!