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Avoiding a Social Media Melee--Five Things to Consider When Developing Your Company’s Social Media Strategy

Posted by Elaine Varelas  March 7, 2011 08:00 AM

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by Elaine Varelas

The use of social media sites has exploded over the past several years. Even if you live in a cave, you can have a LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook account, just as long as you have a smartphone and wifi access. It is easier than ever to connect with hundreds, even thousands, of people in an instant through social media web sites.

At the same time, the line between personal and private time is getting increasingly blurred as more people telecommute, bring their laptops home with them to work after hours, and stay in touch with the office virtually around the clock through technology. By their design, social media sites foster a blend of the professional and the personal. On any given user profile, a person is likely to have contacts ranging from college roommates to current clients and colleagues to old flames.

Given their ambiguous nature, social media sites can create a tricky confluence of factors in the workplace. It can be challenging for HR managers and company leaders to develop a policy that satisfies employees, allows people to access the benefits of the technology, and protects the company from the dark side of these sites. Here are five things HR managers should consider when putting together a social media strategy:

No policy is a risky policy
Some HR managers, so overwhelmed by the complexity of regulating the use of these sites, try to crawl into their proverbial caves and pretend the technology doesn’t exist. Others leave it up to individual managers, and still others believe that employees can police themselves (“We trust our employees to make appropriate choices.”). Unfortunately, not having a policy can expose the organization to an embarrassing incident, bad publicity or even legal action. There are currently several law suits working their way through the courts involving people who have sued their former employers after being terminated because of a post on a social media site. While it is noble to trust employees, some people--especially if they are new to a site--may not know how to use the technology appropriately. All it takes to create a potentially cringeworthy situation is one novice user posting in the wrong place.

Blocking sites may hurt the organization
Other HR managers address the challenge by blocking these sites from the company’s server. Of course, this action comes with it’s own risks. By cutting access to these networking sites, organizations may also be turning away business. Many companies attribute a significant portion of their annual sales to these sites, and some organizations request that their employees maintain Linkedin and Twitter accounts. Blocking these sites can also put your company at a hiring disadvantage as they can be valuable recruiting tools.

A policy should be explicit and specific
It only takes one employee who doesn’t understand the ramifications of using a social networking site incorrectly to put the company at risk. Assume everyone knows nothing when developing your policy. Be specific about the dos and don’ts for employees. Some questions you might want to consider are: Can employees list the company as their workplace? Can they befriend clients and vendors? Can they post about clients, vendors, colleagues or the competition? Give examples of what is okay and what is off-limits. Also let employees know the consequences of inappropriate actions. Having a policy also takes the pressure off employees who may not know what is expected of them when it comes to how they should be using these sites at work.

Define private
Many people are under the impression that what they do (or post) during their personal time with their personal computer remains private. Remind employees that posting on public forums is never private. Cyber-bullying a co-worker or badmouthing a manager, direct report or the organization on the Internet is akin to writing the message in spray paint on the office building and signing your name. Just because the action took place after hours and the person supplied the can of spray paint, it is still an attack on the company. Employees need to know that they will be held accountable for what they post on these sites, and that company representatives will be checking sites periodically.

Give employees the tools to use social media effectively
You wouldn’t put employees on a manufacturing floor without being trained in how to use the heavy machinery. The same philosophy applies to social media sites. Organizations can take advantage of the vast business potential of these sites, but they must give employees the training they need to do it properly.

There is tremendous opportunity for organizations to tap into social media web sites to increase their profits. With new users joining every day, it seems irresponsible for companies not to take advantage of this growing potential pool of customers, clients, and future employees. Yet, these sites can be dangerous because with the click of a mouse, employees can broadcast any message or photo they choose across the Internet. HR managers can help their organizations utilize these sites while mitigating risk by creating a detailed policy for employees to follow and giving them the training they need to use the sites correctly. By giving employees reign to use the sites at work along with education and guidelines, they can post, link and tweet their way through cyberspace while growing the business as well.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management company. She can be reached at

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.