For those who think Facebook and Twitter are the main social media sites out there, think again. There has been an explosion of new sites over the last few years, including Google Plus, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Pinterest, and Instagram, to name just a few. And chances are high that even if a company is not utilizing these sites, its employees are.

How employees use these sites is of growing interest to many employers, who are concerned that personnel are using social media on company time, and perhaps even posting disparaging or inflammatory comments about the company, coworkers, or customers. For these reasons, many contractors are crafting policies that spell out how and when social media can be utilized, both personally and on behalf of the company.

Make Sure it’s Legal

How employers use social media policies has also attracted the attention of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has recently struck down several of these policies, stating that “some of the provisions in the employers’ policies and rules are overbroad and thus unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.”

That is why it is so important to make sure any social media policy receives the blessing from a lawyer and/or human resources professional. As Theo Etzel, CEO and owner, Conditioned Air Corp., Naples, Fla., noted, “You have to be cognizant of the fact that you’re not stepping on someone’s First Amendment right of free speech; however, we do have the right to protect things that are ours.”

For example, Conditioned Air is an open-book management company, which means that employees are privy to all sorts of sensitive information, such as the company’s net profits, sales, revenues, etc. The company obviously does not want to share some of this information with the general public, which is why the company’s fairly extensive social media policy states that employees must “maintain the confidentiality of Conditioned Air trade secrets and private or confidential information.”

“This information is for our employees’ eyes only, and our policy states that they cannot share it verbally or in writing, and that includes posting it on social media sites,” said Etzel. “They also can’t post derogatory statements about our clients, coworkers, or suppliers, or use it as a medium for doing those things. Basically, we ask that they be respectful when using social media and not to disclose any financial information or trade secrets.”

Apollo Home Comfort, Cincinnati, also has a social media policy in place, which receives an annual legal review along with the rest of the company manual, said Jamie Gerdsen, president. “We’ve had our company manual for years. Every year we review it from the first to the last page, then we submit any changes to a law firm. We want to make sure that we’re compliant with any new guidelines, including new rulings from the NLRB.”

Gerdsen characterizes the company’s social media policy as being pretty loose, believing that the more you try to control things, the harder it gets to control them. That being said, employees are not allowed to speak on behalf of the company on social media sites, although if they want to post something of interest in an effort to drum up business, he does not want to prevent that either.

“It’s a fine line, which is why we wrote a very broad policy that basically addresses liability,” said Gerdsen. “If employees choose to post something about Apollo on a social media outlet that is perceived to be defamatory, libelous, or slanderous, that can get you fired. But to date, we have not had many issues with that.”

Personal Space

Brian Byrd, CFO, Roscoe Brown Inc., Murfreesboro, Tenn., is currently in the process of drafting a social media policy for the company’s 125 employees who work at three different locations. The new policy will ask employees to refrain from referencing the company on personal social media pages, due to the sensitivity around political and social commentary made by employees and others. “We would, however, encourage employees to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ the company, as well as encourage them to utilize LinkedIn to reference where they work and their professional development.”

A select few Roscoe Brown employees have the login credentials to post or respond to online reviews, but all communications and posts are reviewed before posting on the company’s social media pages, said Byrd. And even though there is limited monitoring of personal social media activity, there have been times when employees have been asked to remove posts. “We have seen inappropriate posts on personal sites, and we counseled the employees and asked them to delete the posts immediately.”

While the social media policy at Conditioned Air states that employees cannot use company time to access personal social media sites, Etzel does not concern himself too much with the personal postings made by employees. “Unless it is brought to our attention, we do not actively police what people do in their time away from Conditioned Air, unless their behavior reflects poorly on our company. In those limited situations when they are representing our company, or decide they’re going to speak on behalf of Conditioned Air, then we have the right to intervene.”

But so far, Etzel has not had too many problems with employees abusing the social media policy. “I think that’s because we are a good place to work. We’re very respectful, we treat people well, and we’re one big team. We try not to build any kind of walls or silos between departments, and we don’t have a lot of turnover, which is very fortunate. But we work hard at it.”

Gerdsen also does not spend much time monitoring employees’ personal sites, except if he learns of a behavior that is not in line with the company’s core values. “I try to ignore most of that stuff, but if we find somebody posting about driving home drunk, or doing something else that is not smart behavior, that’s going to be a problem for us. I can’t control what employees do outside of work, but I can certainly say that their behavior is not in line with our core policy as a business. It’s a right-to-work state, and we have a right to ask them to leave.”

Fortunately, Gerdsen’s employees have been responsible users of social media, which he attributes to the company’s culture. “The best social media policy is one in which you have a great culture for your company, then you don’t have to worry about it. With any organization, owners sometimes forget that they get what they give. So, if they want to be really tough on their people, of course, they’re going to be upset, and they might use social media as an outlet to do that. I think you can control most of that by just being a great employer and doing what’s in the best interest of your employees all the time, not just when it’s convenient.”

Publication date: 2/3/2014

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