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Social media: the debate over policy

2nd Jul 2010
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Do you think you need a social media policy?

There’s been a lot of debate, particularly sparked by this year’s SHRM conference in the US over whether organisations need a social media policy.

Over on XpertHR, David Shepherd has written a long but very comprehensive lowdown of the arguments and concluded that organisations do need a social media policy. I think he’s right, but I also think I can see why others are arguing against it.

There are several reasons:

1.    Not all HR practitioners in the UK are comfortable with social media on a personal front, let alone ‘risking’ brand damage by freely letting employees loose on it on behalf of the company.

2.    That's not to say no HR people are using social media: it's more a question of why they are drawn to it. An interest in technology, wishing to build personal brand, or something else: for example, consultants naturally have some marketing in mind in regards to their social media presence. These people are more comfortable with the channels and will therefore feel a lot better about the lack of control some practitioners perceive. But not everyone is there yet.

3.    The legal stuff. As David said in his latest blog post: “From a legal point of view, if an employee is going to breach their employer's confidentiality or damage its reputation, it doesn't really matter if they do this by writing a letter to the editor of The Times or posting a status update on Facebook. The issue will generally be the same: what in the UK would be called a breach of the duty of mutual trust and confidence.” (Incidently, does this exist in US law? Then again, employment rights are largely better protected in the UK, although I understand it varies from state to state in the US.)

4.    Maybe it’s a British thing, but it’s definitely HR’s answer to everything: we need a policy! I thought of the ‘precautionary principle’ when considering this: what’s wrong with a bit of caution for now? We could always change the policy later, couldn’t we? Another quote from David: “So it is not going to be enough to say to business leaders: "Come on in, just trust your employees, now strip off and jump right into social media, the water's lovely." It is quite understandable and legitimate for employers still to be at the toe-dipping stage. Let's not exaggerate the extent to which most businesses are under an immediate competitive threat from web savvy, social media friendly competitors. Some are, many are not.”

I agree with Trish MacFarlane when she says in her blog post: “The bottom line is that employees are adults. If you treat them like they are and set the expectations of what "proper" communication looks like for your company regardless of the medium used, you'll be just fine.”

And I understand the argument that social media is not really much different to allowing email and telephone calling – something David refutes by the way, but I know that many of the HR practitioners DO see it as different, at the moment. And surely there’s nothing wrong with building a policy?

For those of you who are throwing yourself into social media for whatever reason, marketing, communication, or recruitment being the favourites at the moment, without a policy, that’s fine. But for those who are less confident, I have these resources which I hope will encourage you to consider it and perhaps make convincing others in the organisation a bit easier:

Check out Laurie Ruettimann’s Employee Handbook. Perhaps this is the approach you want to take?

See IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines. This is a social media and internet use policy which continually evolves with technology. What’s stopping you implementing something like this?

There's also this article, about a year old but worth looking at - 10 things to consider.

And this tool may help you start your policy building: it’s a build-your-own social media policy. You’d need to have it checked over and amend it further to be a truly tailor-made piece of policy but it’s a good starting point.

So you’ve got your policy (or you’ve decided you don’t need one). There will have to be a better excuse for ignoring social media and the effect it’s having in your organisation now.

P.S. David’s latest blog, by the way, focuses on smartphones and personal web-enabled devices employees are bringing into the workplace. It’s worth a read – something else to consider in the policy?

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By Richard Lane
03rd May 2013 16:38

Many believe it to be risky for companies not to have social media policies in place due to the number of employees that not only use social media but see it as an integral part of their lives. Seeing as access to social media is so difficult to restrict because people use mobiles, tablets etc., a fair policy must be in place to accommodate what people consider to be very important to them.

Richard Lane, director at durhamlane

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