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Setting Social Media Guidelines, not Policies in the Workplace

Source: Employees Linking Work, Social Media
By Wailin Wong |Tribune Newspapers June 11, 2009

Sun Microsystems exhorts its blogging employees, “Don’t tell secrets.”

IBM advises its workers, “Don’t pick fights, be the first to correct your own mistakes, and don’t alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.”

And DePaul University says, “Don’t be a mole” by pretending to be someone else.

These guidelines are a sampling of how workplaces are crafting policies on employees’ use of social media platforms such as blogs and networking Web sites. The technology’s tendency to blur personal and professional lines, as well as its ability to quickly spread information or misinformation, has companies grappling with thorny issues that aren’t fully addressed in existing policies on e-mail and general Internet use.

“If I can put up pictures of the kids, I can put up pictures from a meeting,” said Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group, a human resources consulting firm. “If I can talk about a recipe I saw with my sister, I can put up an article about something I saw that’s work-related. … People are talking about you, whether you want them to or not. As a company, you need to think about how you want to be positioned.”

The consequences of what’s deemed bad online behavior can be serious. Last year, a North Carolina school district disciplined several faculty members for Facebook content such as personal photos and comments about students. Wired.com reported Wednesday that an Associated Press staffer in Philadelphia was reprimanded for a Facebook posting that criticized The McClatchy Co., a member of the AP cooperative.

Not all workplaces are reactive.

“If we’re out in front and do the correct employee development and training, it can certainly be used in a very positive way,” said Mary Anne Kelly, chief human resource officer at the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, which is drafting non-binding social media guidelines for more than 140 member hospitals.

At Desert Rose Design, a marketing firm, vice president Kathy Steele noticed that employees were receiving Facebook friend requests from clients. She asked her staff to steer customers toward the firm’s official fan page on Facebook.

“We want it to be fun on our fan page, but there are some lines with how our employees want to use their Facebook pages,” Steele said. “We want to make sure they’re free to do so.”

Steele also wants Desert Rose to have a unified image across the Web. To that end, employees are revising their LinkedIn profiles to make sure company information is consistent.

Companies agree on many basic guidelines: Always disclose your affiliation. Respect the confidentiality of colleagues and clients. Personal opinions should have a disclaimer that they don’t reflect corporate views.

But businesses still have to contend with gray areas, such as staffers who contribute to Web-based industry forums during their off-hours or communicate publicly with co-workers through Facebook.

ClearTrial, a firm that makes planning software for clinical trials, trusts that its employees exercise the same judgment whether at a conference or online, said Mike Lange, the company’s director of marketing.

“You have to balance the corporate goals of an organization with the individual freedom of that person,” Lange said. “What we all decided was, it’s not something that you can micromanage. … You have to trust the people you hire, but give them guidelines.”

Besides, strict oversight may not work as a strategy. A recent Deloitte LLP survey of more than 2,000 employed adults showed that 61 percent of them wouldn’t change their social media behavior if they knew they were being monitored.

A better strategy is “regular communication … that’s not a pejorative approach,” said Deloitte chairwoman Sharon Allen, who added that businesses should encourage good principles rather than punish employees after the fact.

Mark Spognardi, a partner in Arnstein & Lehr’s Labor & Employment practice, said employee monitoring also can erode morale and productivity. But workers have to know they have no privacy and office computer systems are company property.

“It’s like you’re extending them a courtesy of being able to use a phone call for a personal reason,” Spognardi said.

Ultimately, corporate attempts to dictate online habits may run contrary to the technology’s nature.

“Social media is not about being pushy,” Lange said. “It’s about context. It’s about conversation. It’s about being natural. That’s why you can’t dictate this from the top.”

Elizabeth

Elizabeth is a strategic communications leader with nearly 20 years experience in both internal and external communications. She is a passionate advocate for developing communications that foster a stronger relationship between the organization and its employees. She is a global keynote speaker on employee engagement and HR communications. Elizabeth is a certified professional in Employer Brand through Universum Global's Employer Branding Academy.