In the new world we live in, companies need a policy on social media. I can imagine the reader of that sentence looking aghast, thinking about the extra burdens already faced as a result of new legislation ranging from health and safety to employment and beyond. Social media too?
Social media is a part of our environment and also a new tool for us to use. In its first role we have to control the way our staff use it. We cannot have them publicly criticising the company or their line manager or bullying a work colleague through their Facebook page. Nor can we have trade secrets or new marketing initiatives betrayed through unrestricted chatter on online forums. Of course actions such as these are already covered by specific or implied terms in employment contracts so you can argue that nothing new needs to be done. Why is something written on a Facebook page any different from writing a letter to a newspaper when either would be a breach of discipline? I think the difference lies in the lower barriers to on-line action. It is so easy to say something rude about a colleague in an off-the-cuff comment on Twitter: you are typing a short message and add a few different keystrokes and hit send; and it has gone, irretrievably. On the other hand, getting out a sheet of paper and a pen and sitting down to write a letter takes that bit more effort and intent. It then requires the result to be folded and put in an envelope, a stamp put on and the final missive taken to a post box. Even at the last moment it requires a physical movement to post it which gives an instant to reconsider.
The ease of use of social media creates a case for giving staff simple, clear policies on what they may not do online. But we may not want to put everything out of bounds. A company may, for example, be quite happy for its software engineers to discuss a technical problem through an online forum and get a solution, as long as that does not mean giving away trade secrets. Good intent, however, is not enough on its own. If your company faces the misfortune of a serious accident or some other crisis you actually may not want your staff defending you online any more than you want them criticising you. It muddies the message and may have legal consequences.