Facebook, Twitter: Six steps to making them work for your business

Policies, policing and pitfalls - how to approach social media

...a group of stakeholders in drafting a policy and, more importantly, in enforcing it. "I think it is cross-departmental because it is not just a pure HR issue," says Ann Bevitt, head of employment at lawyers Morrison & Foerster.

"You have got to understand how your systems are set up and whether what you are suggesting reflects the technical reality," she says, adding there should be legal input on any policy that seeks to control employee behaviour.

What to leave in, what to leave out
Having pulled together the best minds in the company - and perhaps an external consultant or two - the next step is to draft the policy. Companies may be tempted to think that existing rules on issues such as staff conduct or web use may cover most of the bases.

But according to Bevitt, it makes sense to have explicit rules in place for emerging issues such as social media. "I think when something is new it is useful to really draw attention to it rather than just amending an IT or tech use policy," she says.

Issues to consider include external risks such as defamation and interfering with client relationships, if remarks are made about a customer or partner, for example. There are also internal risks to consider.

social networking at work, it can work for your business

Putting together a policy should be a joint project between HR and IT
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

"Companies need to be aware of issues such as vicarious liability in the case of employee-to employee-harassment, victimisation or discrimination," Bevitt says. There are also risks to confidential information and trade secrets to consider, which could occur accidentally or on purpose.

Accountability all the way
Being explicit about what employees can and cannot do on social networks is important but it's also important not to be too prescriptive, experts argue.

The secret to drafting guidelines of this type successfully is to encourage users to accept responsibility for their own behaviour, according to the president of recruitment site CareerBuilder, Farhan Yasin.

"The first issue is accountability. You write it, you own it. Employees are essentially acting as online spokespeople for the company. If they're talking about the company or about their work at the company, they need to clearly identify themselves and adhere to company policies," he says.

Education, education, education
While many staff will have used at least one social media application, others may have no experience of the technology. It might sound counter-intuitive to provide training in a medium that you are trying to control but making sure all staff have a basic grasp of the leading social media tools is fundamental to laying down policies on use.

"The key to controlling social media is education," says Rick Mans, social media evangelist for consultancy Capgemini. "Employers need to talk to employees about the technologies they are using, how they are using them and their impact on the working day. Not only will this communication increase trust but it might give those in charge new ideas about utilising these technologies to generate business."

Policing the policy
With a policy in place, the issue of how to enforce it arises. For most staff the policy should be an explicit reminder of what sort of behaviour is expected by the company. But the question of how exactly to police such policies is more problematic.

"I think it's acceptable to say to staff that if they see something that is in breach of this policy to report it," says Morrison & Foerster's Bevitt. "You have that in other areas of employment law. But as for taking action against someone for the failure to report - not the actual act but the failure to report it - would be difficult unless there was clear information available to you," she adds.

But trawling around looking for evidence of social media offences could see management in breach of data protection laws, so any steps in this area have to be taken carefully.