Our top 5 tips for creating an effective social media policy for employees

Have you safeguarded the online presence of your SME business?

What is a social media policy?

A social media policy provides a standard of acceptable behaviour for employees in their professional and personal use of social media.
Social media is an increasingly important tool for SME businesses to market their products, connect with clients and grow business partnerships. On the other hand, inappropriate use of social media can do untold damage.

A clear and comprehensive social media policy is essential to set the guidelines of what you expect from your employees. Here are our top five tips for creating an effective social media policy for your SME business.

Tip #1: Set the framework

The right framework needs to be put in place so that your social media policy is clear and enforceable – and that decisions can be made with reference to common criteria and goals.

The first layer of the framework is your standard employment contract. Your employment contract should stipulate that your business has a social media policy that will be updated from time to time. Your employment contract should also set out potential consequences resulting from an employee’s failure to adhere to the policy – for example, that serious or repeated breaches of the policy may result in dismissal.

The second layer of the framework is the introduction and maintenance of the policy document itself. Each employee should be asked to read the social media policy and each subsequent version, and to sign an acknowledgement that they have done so. This provides a clear record within your business that your employees are aware of the terms of the social media policy. You must also ensure that you do not ‘set and forget’ the policy, and that you regularly update it to deal with new behaviour and new technologies.

The third layer of the framework is ensuring that your social media policy is readily accessible by employees. We suggest that a hard copy compendium of your workplace policies (including the social media policy) be maintained in the tea room or another area within your workplace that all employees can access. An electronic copy of the social media policy should also be available to your employees through an online directory or by email.

Lastly, you should actively ensure that employees are given regular reminders about the terms of your social media policy. If you conduct regular staff reviews or hold regular team meetings, these are an excellent forum for discussion of existing policies and any policy changes.

In a nutshell: Ensure that your employees are aware of the existence and current terms of your social media policy.

Tip #2: Clearly outline your expectations

You must clearly and unambiguously outline the standard of behaviour expected of your employees by setting out what constitutes unacceptable use of social media. This standard of behaviour can range from requiring your employees to maintain an updated LinkedIn profile, through to restricting your employees from making any reference to your business or its customers on social media.

We suggest that you make it clear what is acceptable and unacceptable by using dot points outlining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and including examples where appropriate.

Your social media policy should also reflect duties that are imposed by law. You and your employees have a variety of legal obligations under anti-discrimination and anti-bullying law, and these aspects should be covered in your policy so that your employees are familiar with the legal requirements.

Your business’ name, logo and slogan all constitute your intellectual property, which can be damaged and de-valued if misused. Your social media policy should remind employees that your intellectual property is valuable and that their unauthorised use of it would likely result in real damage, including financial damage.

In a nutshell: What constitutes required use, acceptable use and unacceptable use of social media must be clear and unambiguous in your policy.

Tip #3: Appropriately regulate personal use of social media

Social media enables people to make comments and statements to a large audience very easily, often without appreciation of the ramifications. People can also share ostensibly private comments to a select group of individuals through chat room and messaging functions, but there is no guarantee that those comments will remain private. Not even snapchat posts (which automatically disappear after a given time) are safe – as people simply take ‘screen shots’ and post the content on other permanent media.

Just because your employee uses social media in their personal time does not mean that their use is private – in fact, it is usually for the whole world to see, including you and your customers. This means that it is increasingly open to you to place appropriate restrictions on your employee’s personal use of social media in order to safeguard your legitimate business interests.

Recent decisions of the Fair Work Commission show that disciplinary action may be taken against an employee if their social media use has seriously damaged their relationship with their employer, other employees or customers, or damaged the reputation of their employer’s business. This remains the case even if the use was outside of normal working hours.

Accordingly, your social media policy should set out your expectations regarding your employees’ use of social media for private purposes. For example, your policy may require your employees to brand any online posts as their own opinion. This ensures that your business is distanced from any comment that your employee makes that does not reflect the attitude or ethos of your business.

You should also consider whether it is appropriate to restrain your employees from discussing topics on social media that are likely to cause offence or incite argument. Whether or not this is a reasonable policy will depend on the nature of your business and the degree to which your employee’s reputation is connected to the reputation of your business.

In a nutshell: Personal use of social media is not private. Appropriate regulation of your employees’ personal social media use is acceptable and enforceable.

Tip #4: Set out the consequences of non-compliance

To avoid the costly and time-consuming nature of legal action, it is vital that you clearly set out the consequences of failure to comply with your social media policy. Consequences can range from requiring an employee to attend a social media policy training session through to an employee’s dismissal, depending on the seriousness of the breach.

You should consider grouping unacceptable social media use behaviours in your policy according to the likely consequences, so that your employees understand the severity of the behaviour and the corresponding consequence. Clarifying the consequences from the outset will assist you and your management staff to effectively enforce the policy if breaches occur. Your policy should also state that multiple minor breaches of the policy, taken together, can lead to dismissal.

Employees should be made aware that some behaviour may have consequences that extend beyond termination of employment. For example, misuse of your business’ intellectual property or specific instances of destroying customer relationships may give rise to a claim for damages with financial repercussions for the employee.

In a nutshell: Make the consequences clear by stipulating that discipline, dismissal or damages may result.

Tip #5: Enforce your policy

Having a great policy is one thing, but failing to enforce it can undermine all your hard work.

The key things to remember are to be careful and consistent in enforcing your social media policy. Take care in properly identifying and investigating potential policy breaches before speaking with the employee concerned, then carefully document the discussion or warning so that there is evidence of the breach. And be consistent in enforcing the policy across the board for all employees at all levels of seniority to keep the message strong within your workplace.

Regular or repeated breaches of your social media policy, particularly by a ‘repeat offender’ or an offending group, can create a hostile work environment and be damaging to your business. Although each breach viewed in isolation may not provide sufficient grounds for a dismissal, multiple breaches viewed together may constitute serious misconduct. This is because repeat offences reflect a disregard for your business policies and priorities, and can destroy the trust in your working relationship. The Fair Work Commission has indicated that it considers repeated breaches of a social media policy by an employee to be incompatible with the employee’s duties, and has upheld decisions of employers to terminate employees in those instances.

In a nutshell: Be careful and consistent in your enforcement of your policy.

What to take away

Social media policies are an excellent way for SME businesses to regulate a technology that can do untold good – and untold harm – to a business. Mastering your business’ social media policy implementation, content and enforcement will ensure that your business maintains a strong and positive online presence.

If you would like assistance with your social media policy or any other issue related to employment law, please call us on 1300 654 590.

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