Lawsuits & PR Nightmares: Why Employees Need Social Media Guidelines

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How have companies with more than 1,000 employees been faring with employees and their social media use?

According to multiple recent studies, it appears that many companies have encountered problems and these problems are escalating.

Consider these results from a recent Proofpoint study examining how companies are managing their employees’ social media behavior:

  • 17 percent disciplined an employee for violating blog or message board policies. Nearly 9 percent reported terminating an employee for such a violation (both increases from 2008, 11 percent and six percent, respectively).
  • 15 percent have disciplined an employee for violating multimedia sharing/posting policies in the past 12 months, while 8 percent reported terminating an employee for such a violation.
  • US companies are experiencing an increase in “exposure incidents” involving sites like Facebook and LinkedIn as compared to 2008 (17 percent versus 12 percent). US companies are now taking a much more forceful approach with offending employees – 8 percent reported terminating an employee for such a violation as compared to only four percent in 2008.
  • Short message services like SMS texts and Twitter also pose a risk. 13 percent of US companies investigated an exposure event involving mobile or Web-based short message services in the past 12 months.

It appears employees are doing something wrong in their social media sharing, and they’re doing so in a pretty big way.

Interestingly, though, according to the Deloitte LLP 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey, a mere 17% of companies have programs in place to monitor and mitigate the potential reputational risks related to the use of social networks.

There are clear-cut cases of right and wrong, but should employees be held entirely responsible for borderline transgressions in the absence of structure?

As social media continues to evolve, many companies continue to address problems reactively, as opposed to proactively. They are handling problems after they arise and are not giving their employees a clear, distinct direction to follow. In the absence of direction, employees are left to determine right from wrong on their own without knowing, or possibly thinking, how their activity relates to the company’s social media view. As the above studies show, this leads to unwanted conflict for both the employer and employee.

When asked how companies can keep their employees from doing stupid things online, Scott Monty, Head of Social Media at Ford Motor Company, had this to say:

“The same way it can keep employees from doing stupid things on email & the phone. Give them guidelines and resources. Have an online communications policy that follows standard communications policies and trust them to do the right thing.”

Scott’s views were echoed by corporate Twitter celebrity @RichardAtDell who simply says “educate and trust…short and sweet”.

I posed the same question to a broader group of social media experts. Here’s what they had to say…

Christi of @SouthwestAir:

“Most of our employees luv (SWA pun) their job! They are pretty cautious about what they say online. We encourage them to identify themselves as SWA Employees. Also, most of them are aware of what is considered confidential info, so they are cautious.”

Michael Brito, a social media enthusiast within Intel and respected writer of an informative social media blog:

“The reality is that you can’t. Trying to control human behavior in general is a difficult task. It starts with internal education, training, and establishing guidelines for employees. The caveat is that if employees are already online and using social media to communicate with others but NOT talking about the company in any way, companies have little to nothing they can say or react to. If an employee IS talking about the company in which they work for, they should be trained on what they should and shouldn’t say, especially when it involves around any legalities.”

David Knapp of @BofA_Help:

“I don’t think I’ll tell you anything you don’t already know, but even though employees say their views don’t represent the company, they do. Also, it’s important to keep in mind the legal/regulatory impacts of any posts made in social spaces as a perceived representative of the company. It may not fit in all instances, but often employees don’t know what they don’t know.”

Morgan of @JetBlue:

“Give your employees clear expectations if they’re going to engage openly online and also provide them with resources, so that if they’re confronted with questions, they’re not left making things up.”

Lee Odden of Top Rank Online Marketing:

“It comes down to explaining. Give examples of good/bad and establishing a social media guideline. Encourage self policing.”

Joe of @Overstock:

“Make sure you don’t let your emotions get involved. Otherwise you take it personally and react instead of listening.”

Jordana of @FacesOfGM:

“GM offers extensive social media training, administered by a 3rd party, for employees. GM encourages transparency and respect above all.”

UK SEO Consultant Ben McKay offers an agency’s perspective:

“If you’re managing a client’s social media, you need to work within brand guidelines. This is best enforced using a ‘rules of engagement’ doc that needs to be bespoke and written by the client and the agency together.”

There is a clear consensus among the experts that establishing social media guidelines, and training employees on the proper use of social media within those guidelines, are paramount to running a successful company.

Now that you recognize the importance of a social media policy, what should you consider when creating it?

You will find many examples of real social media policies at the bottom of this post but, unfortunately, no one can truly answer that question without consulting your individual company.

  • There is no worldwide policy for social media usage and behavior.
  • There are varying degrees of tolerance.
  • There will be different levels of desired participation, different opinions on conflict resolution and different opinions on the overall value of social media.

There are, however, a few questions you should ask when considering how your company wants to proceed. Doing so can greatly help establish your plan of action and define your beliefs.

Five Things to Consider for your Social Media Guidelines for Employees

1. How does the use of social media affect employee productivity? Do you want employees accessing social media sites at work for either personal or business relations?

2. What legal issues do your company, or vertical, face regarding proper disclosure and/or advice?
After all, small print exists for a reason, and it’s usually not contained within 140 characters.

3. What restrictions should employees have when interacting? Like it or not, they will be perceived as a representative.

4. How will you train them on the use of these social media guidelines? It’s one thing to establish guidelines, but they’re failing if employees do not understand, or know, about them.

5. What will the repercussions be for violations? Are you willing to enforce them?

Please share your social media guidelines in the comments below.

22 Useful Social Media Resources

Do you need to establish social media guidelines? Here are 22 social media policy examples and resources.

  1. Dell Online Communication Policy
  2. Intel Social Media Guidelines
  3. Greteman Group Social Media Policy
  4. IBM Social Computing Guidelines
  5. Cisco Internet Postings Policy
  6. HP Blogging Code of Conduct
  7. Wells Fargo Community Guidelines
  8. Telstra (Australia) Social Media Guidelines
  9. Sharing Mayo Clinic
  10. BBC Guidance Personal Use of Social Networking and Other Third Party Websites
  11. Depaul University Social Media Guidelines
  12. Gartner Public Web Participation Guidelines
  13. Blogging and Social Media Policy
  14. US Coast Guard Social Media Policy Part 1
  15. US Coast Guard Social Media Policy Part 2
  16. RightNow Social Web Employee Policy
  17. SAP Social Media Guidelines 2009
  18. Ottawa Public Library Social Media Guidelines
  19. Social Media Business Council: Disclosure Best Practices Toolkit
  20. Social Media and Social Networking Policies and Procedures Template
  21. Social Networking and Reputational Risks in the Workplace: Deloitte LLP 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey Results
  22. The WOMMA Ethics Code

How do you feel about the Proofpoint case studies? Do you agree or disagree with the findings? According to a recent Deloitte study, this is how others feel:

  • 74% of employees surveyed say it’s easy to damage a company’s reputation on social media.
  • 58% of executives agree that reputational risk and social networking should be a board room issue, but only 15% say it actually is.
  • 53% of employee respondents said their social networking pages are none of their employers’ business.
  • 40% of business executive respondents disagree, and 30% admit to informally monitoring social networking sites.
  • 61% of employees say that even if employers are monitoring their social networking profiles or activities, they won’t change what they’re doing online — they know it’s not private, and have already made significant adjustments to their online profiles.
  • Would a company policy change how you behave online? 49% of employees say “no.”

Please share your opinions, experiences and ask all the questions you want.


Matt Leonard
Matt Leonard currently directs SEO, SEM and Revenue Management for Cruise Critic, the world’s largest cruise site and part of the Trip Advisor Media Group.... Read Full Bio
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  • Excellent article Matt. I appreciate that you took the time to question a number of people from high visibility brands, and that you’re providing so many links to existing social media policies online. I’m going to give a link to this article to my corporate clients for sure…

  • Amazing article Matt! Great points and lots of opinions from others – I will be using this information for quite a while.

  • Remember when former Google employee Mark Jen complained of being fired “either directly or indirectly” because of a blog post, right after being hired by Google? Don’t ever-react with too stringent guidelines. Exercise care nonetheless. Successful social media profiles need to be authentic. When on behalf of a company, authenticity is still key along with general good natured messages. Any commercialism must have value to be heard through the noise.

  • MT Ray

    Great article….I was just having a conversation yesterday with someone who’s company has prohibited any twitter usage….these are great guidelines to follow. I will be forwarding it on!

  • Matt, I gained so much insight from your research, and I hope other businesses do as well.

    There was a panel discussion corporate social media policies at SES. The goal of most policies were not so much about enforcement but about educating employees to make them aware so they understand that what they do in social media could affect the company brand. IBM’s social computing policy you referenced was cited as an excellent blueprint.

    Then, Zappos took the stage. Their policy is, “Be smart!” There was a silent gasp in the crowd when they shared that Zappos doesn’t have social media policies. They focus on training employees about social media usage, best practices. Zappos’ stance is that if training fails, employee participation will fail.

    Maybe some of the companies who are having employee challenges should contact Zappos for some training tips! As you bring to light, the issues are escalating. They need to be proactive!

    Great post, Matt!

  • Thank your for this great post. You got my company thinking about establishing specific social media guidelines. It is fair to say that a good number of today’s employees engage in some type of social media. I believe it is definitely easy to damage a company’s reputation on social media. While browsing and updating personal profiles, employees leave their work behind and think of their personal profiles as private property. This can turn into a huge problem if employees forget that they representing their company on or off the clock.

  • Excellent Matt! This is one topic that has created a buzz within small and large companies. I don’t know what the solution is other than companies take this seriously. Whether they pay in house for one person to be responsible or they hire a professional company. That seem to be the straw that breaks the camels back. We have clients asking us to “twitter” for them, I refuse… For one thing I would have no clue what to charge since it’s a huge undertaking, nor do I think my personality will work with every client. Great post though something to think about!

  • Great resource article, Matt, a real keeper.

    I think the important thing is to ensure that you have a good culture within the company. If you work hard at that, then the openness that is the best way of handling Internet contacts will work well. You win so much more if you do not need police to control every contact an employee makes with the outside world.

  • WOW – what a great resource for companies that want to put social media guidelines in place – it can be scary to want to jump on board, to think of the consequences, that we all see in the media, from some fiasco that could have been stopped before it started. Great stuff – thanks!

  • The funny thing is that we are only getting started with social media and what it has to offer. I can see these issues growing larger and wider as time goes on.

  • Excellent points and insights. Made me reflect back to the days of when email really started to get extensive usage at businesses. Things evolved from the chaos and policies and procedures were put in place.

    Your list of resources is very helpful. Having input and quotes from specific businesses was great. Very useful post. Thanks.

  • What a fantastic article – You always hear about that one person who isn’t allowed to look on facebook or linked in. The computers have filters that block the users from accessing these networks.

    I think its a good idea for large companies to put some restrictions and or supply training to their employees. However, banning them outright I think is a bad idea… The companies can be getting “free” exposure from their employees without having to invest much.

    fantastic stats, informative links, great article! Thanks!!!

  • This is one great article Matt! It shows you really did a lot of effort writing this one informative article.

    I will be reading this and your links for the next coming days.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • Fantastic writeup & I love the links to the other companies policies. This post is a great way to build a basic understanding of what is happening and what is needed in a social media policy. The links to the other policies are great resources for starting your own.

    Thanks for the effort.

  • Thank you all for the kind words. I’m really glad you found it useful. Don’t forget that this is only Part 1 of a series. There will be a new social media post every Wednesday.

  • HI MATT,Congratulations on a fine and in depth article on the effects of social media.It certainly makes for some interesting ideas.

  • Wow, had these companies better wake up! You don’t just unleash a whole bunch of employees on the internet social media (and other) sites with a pat on the head and say “have at it, stranger”. Companies that pay any attention to their SEOs at all (if their SEOs are any good that is and have instructed/warned company officials in the first place) should know there have to be guidelines in place about the brand – what it is, what it isn’t, what words can and cannot be use to describe it, what the targeted audience is so their niche is specifically spoken to. Marketing deals with the macrocosm of the brand image, sales deals with the microcosm of fit of the product to the clients situation.

    Creating an all encompassing set of strict rules is stupid. Give the employees a set of flexible guidelines and make sure they study them – then trust them to do the right thing most of the time. When they don’t, then put the CEO himself on Twitter and Facebook – he or she won’t do any better. But they won’t. They want all the benefits of social media they have heard exist (using real people having real conversations), but they do not tell employees that they empower to use social media that they are now at risk of losing their jobs by doing so.

    David Meerman Scott said it well in his book World Wide Rave when he wrote: “The idea of customers and employees spreading ‘marketing messages’ fro an organization via blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social media sites such as YouTube scares many marketers, corporate communications people, and company executives to death!”

  • What an informative post. A great piece for companies looking to get a grip on how to handle their employees using SM profiles. I just think it’s too bad more companies are open minded to SM & block sites like Digg & FB b/c they consider them a waste of employee time – they should be taking advantage of them!

  • Thanks for the effort. Great article with loads of supporting research. This one is a keeper. Bookmarked!

  • Matt:

    Great article. Most similar articles talk about the potential risks associated with irresponsible social media involvements. You have provided some powerful facts and figures to legitimize and validate corporate concerns regarding reputation management. The risks are real and can cause irreparable damage to a company and its brand. Policies must be put in place and breaches must be avoided at all costs.

    Great effort earns worthy praise and to that end I have included a link to this article at my new Web Site. I hope even more readers will benefit from your shared knowledge. Thank you!

  • The Word of Mouth Marketing Association will soon be announcing a Social Media Policy that companies can utilize. This has been developed via WOMMA’s Legal Affairs Committee. The points made in your article is exactly what prompted WOMMA to take on this very important initiative.

  • Vigilante

    This also seems to be a play at censorship as the employee who has said I hate my job on their media of choice is now in danger of losing said job.

    Employer’s dont want potential employees or customers to see this but people should be able to voice those opions to thier friends and or the world if they choose as they are thier opinion and they are entitled to them.

    Hiding the truth of how companies treat thier employees or how employees may really fell about the companies they work only really serves the company .

    I would imagine that most are not posting trade secrets. i do imagine it is what the Ceo did at the holiday party or whose getting it on with who or why Sally really recieved the promotion, none of which to my knowledge are trade secrets.

    Everyone has said ” I hate my job” or many other none trade secrets to a room full of friends a wife, In a public place. You have all done it and I know you would be lying to say otherwise as it is human nature.

    You have all seen things that people do on the job, you have done at a party or gathering that you have told people, wives friends about, perhaps even joked about with co-workers now they want to fire you for it and restirict it. You have done these things…

    I agree at work people should be working there are many site blockers for that. I agree that trade secrets should not be posted. I believe what people do after they leave for the day should be careful and they should have some freedom to say do and be who they are.

    They Work for you, you dont Own them…