People's relationship with social media is fickle. On the one hand, social networks empower us to forge connections across the globe, share insights, discover new points of view and most importantly, send selfies with dog filters. The role of social media in today’s culture, in fact, transcends its “social” aspect -- it has changed how we learn, bank and buy.
Yet for all of the power social media provides us, there is an equally powerful downside.
Since the inception of Facebook, companies have wrestled with the issue of social media when it comes to their employees. Although none of us want our employers to meddle with our online versions of themselves, our individual accounts are inextricably linked to the companies we work for.
Think about it: We see an intriguing tweet and immediately begin to wonder about the person behind the 140-character soundbite. Still curious about how this person got to be so funny/bold/smart/offensive/___(fill in the blank), we search for this person on LinkedIn and discover not only the name of his or her employer, but this person's professional role within that company.
Putting all this information together in our own social media posts/tweets could then lead to a very, very bad result.
How companies are responding
Because social media blurs the lines between personal versus professional, and public versus private, many companies are taking more active roles in training their workers and setting up guidelines for those workers' social media use.
An excellent guideline here is the rule: “If you wouldn’t want to see your post printed on the front page of the New York Times, you shouldn’t post it.” This mantra has likely saved many from publishing regrettable and flammatory commentary, and halted many a photo of weekend debauchery.
This is advice to live by, because as every social media user by now should know -- but doesn't: Even when an account is set to private, the content published is never really private. Followers can take screenshots and repost them on their own public time Apparently, the allure of broadcasting is sometimes too strong for individuals to exist.
In 2011, a Pier Sixty employee took to Facebook to exact revenge on a harsh boss (calling the boss a "nasty motherf--ker") and to gather messages of support for an upcoming union vote. The post led to the employee's ultimate firing, but the story doesn't end there. The employee sued; and the most recent development came on April 19 when a federal appeals court ruled that the employee's comment was protected speech because it was connected to union activity.
The case of course alerted brands once again to the potential controversies social media usage can spark within their own teams. It reminded them -- if they needed reminding -- that letting incendiary social media posts slide, or go unnoticed, could create PR nightmares for their brands down the line.
The obvious reason why is that consumers want to engage with brands they feel offer employees honesty and transparency, and if workers engage in controversial social conversations about their employers, they could contribute to a brand-identity crisis. While most employees do not usually use social media to publicly berate their bosses or fellow workers, many companies still want to draw clear lines about what is acceptable to post and what is not.
What is "not" could come under the categories of a.) private, or b.) damaging to the company's identity. So, how can companies stop potentially disastrous social media situations from erupting on their own turf? The answer is simple: research, communication and training.
A 2013 CareerBuilder survey found that 39 percent of companies surveyed said they researched their candidates’ social media activity before extending employment offers. That makes sense, as it’s impossible to uncover, from just an interview, an employee’s attitude toward social media.
Brands vet candidates on social networks to further understand whether or not the individual aligns with their company values. This is where the sleuthing process becomes subjective, though. Candidates, across all career stages -- from students looking to secure their first internship, to seasoned professionals -- are highly aware that social vetting is now a normal part of the application process, and many go to extra measures to make sure their social pages are private, or at least, non-controversial.
While most people have a clear sense of what is right or wrong, hateful or respectful, inappropriate or professional, there may be content from their past that dances around those lines. Naysayers opposed to this practice often argue that screening can lead to discrimination.
And they have a point: Companies have to avoid crossing that boundary by ensuring that the social screening process is never executed on a whim. Instead, those companies' guidelines should clearly state what is inappropriate and inexcusable as opposed to what hiring managers simply don’t agree with or like.
The only way for employees to abide by social media guidelines is if companies are transparent about their expectations. Hootsuite recently published an all-encompassing guide to creating social media guidelines. The guide is a definitive template, with advice that ranges from defining roles and educating employees on etiquette when they're interacting with clients, to password security best practices.
It's a resource that that brands can (and should) adopt, to support their mission and culture.
Another item to consider when your company is communicating guidelines is the expectation of social media usage during office hours. Social media permeates every aspect of life, and while employers absolutely have the right to set standards to mitigate distractions, they should also be realistic in their expectations.
In a Bambu by Sprout Social 2016 report, 67 percent of individuals surveyed reported checking their social media accounts at work. It would be impossible to eliminate all such social media use, and counterproductive for companies to attempt to enforce a no-tolerance policy. However, social media use is also highly distracting, so communicating usage expectations through training is well within a company’s rights.
In sum, there’s a fine line between monitoring for the sake of protecting brand image and trolling your own employees. The key to walking this line is communication. Creating a transparent policy around social expectations and offering ongoing employee training on social media behaviors, plus new platform tutorials, can help your company foster a positive social media culture.