Social media. A platform originally built to allow individuals to keep in touch and socialize with a small community of friends has become a forum for discussions as frivolous as kittens and as internationally significant as world leaders in a flame war. Those conversations are no longer limited to people on the same campus, or even in the same countries, nor are they limited to individuals. Organizations realized the reach and significance of social media around the same time as content marketing became a way to offer advice and best practices for free to people who would be drawn to your company and ultimately convert to customers and brand evangelists.

As companies vie with their competitors to own the share of voice among their target audiences, individuals are still expressing their personal pain points, posting pictures of all aspects of their lives, and telling the world their every thought. In a world where the lines between personal lives and professional brands are becoming more blurred than ever, organizations are looking to control the message from every angle.

Why create social media guidelines for employees?

In response to the need to establish a positive brand image and protect confidential information, HR leaders are putting social media guidelines into place for their employees. But have they gone too far? In an attempt to protect their own image, are organizations being overly prescriptive in their rules for employee social media engagement? The answer to that question will depend on who you ask.

In fact, the real power of social media is in the ability to share something and have other people in your network re-share to their networks, and so forth – going viral is the goal for positive news and the fear during downturns or other negative events. In order to grow their networks and audiences, companies are looking more and more to their employees to share their news, views, and promotions on social media. The practice, known as employee advocacy, is taking on more importance as the social media noise grows and it gets harder and harder to get anyone to read your 280 characters and getting people to share is the only way to grow your own audience.

Employee advocacy in social media

The advent of employee advocacy has further blurred the lines between personal opinion and professional responsibility. While organizations want their employees to share – they only want their employees to share what they want them to share. Employees, on the other hand, still regard their social media accounts as their own and not the purview of their employers.

Designing employee social media guidelines that both encourage positive interaction and prevent the kind of posts that will disrupt business requires HR departments to take a measured approach. Laying down a list of heavy-handed rules may actually create a less-favorable social media presence than not having any rules as all, as employees turn away from employee advocacy altogether.

Finding a balance between keeping employees productive during work hours and allowing employees to engage with their social media networks has become a challenge for HR departments and the companies they serve. Creating the guidelines that inform those interactions has become even more challenging.

Best practices for social media guidelines

Design your social media guidelines with your target audience in mind. You already know that your employees have enough materials, emails, and other communications to read every day. They aren’t going to wade through a treatise on social media behavior and you shouldn’t expect them to.  

Instead of telling employees what to do, offer suggestions and recommendations for them to improve their own social media communications and elevate their professional images.  Communicate your recognition of social media as a valuable communication tool for employees and the company and make sure you’re clear that you’re trying to help employees avoid legal pitfalls including company harassment and employee policies. Encourage your employees to use social media wisely and offer suggestions for getting the most out of social media.

In an effort to keep social media guidelines as simple and short as possible, we’ve identified 5 guidelines that must be included. If you feel you need more, we suggest not exceeding 10 guidelines. Any more than that and employees won’t remember anyway.

#1: DO list our company as your employer on your personal accounts

If you’ve taken the time to recruit, interview, and hire the best possible people to fill the roles in your organization, you should be proud to call them your employees and they should be proud to name you as their employer on their social media sites.

The more people who associate with your brand and share your content the better trust and authority you’ll build with the search engines, and within your target audiences. Individuals who are looking to join an organization that fits their own values and goals, will look to social media to understand more about your company and culture than just what you choose to share. Savvy job seekers want to know who else is in the organization, their backgrounds, and if they’re talking about the company. More importantly, they’ll looking for how your employees are talking about you and what they’re saying.

Get your employees involved in your employer brand by encouraging, and even helping them, create LinkedIn profiles that reflect their positions and the contributions they make to the organization. Then, encourage them to share, share, share.

#2: DO share company stories, news, and events

In “The Matchmaker”, Thornton Wilder writes, ““Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.” We heard Dolly say it in the movie, “Hello Dolly.” Social media works much the same way. Your content, thought leadership, and company message are not worth a thing unless they’re spread around encouraging your audiences to grow.

While your marketing department is making social connections with thought leaders, bloggers, and industry influencers in your market and creating content relevant enough to encourage them to share with their own audiences, HR leaders should be leveraging every employee as a source for sharing content and raising awareness and engagement on all social channels.

There are ways to make this easier. Sharing suggested social media posts around large announcements helps employees to know the types of things to say. The easier you can make social sharing for your employees, the better results you ultimately get from the efforts. There are a variety of employee advocacy platforms available for employers to use that make it easy for employees to share not only the bigger announcements, but also the weekly or daily blogs, contributed articles, news media mentions, and related industry thought leadership.

Create added value for your employee advocacy programs by including articles for them to share that don’t necessarily mention the company, but that echo the company’s views on industry trends and topics. In this way, they can grow their own thought leadership position among their social media connections and will be more likely to share the company information alongside a balance of other types of materials.

#3 DO feel free to engage in social media activity that improves your professional image or the image of RiseSmart during normal work hours

What are normal work hours? In most organizations, employees are not constrained to focusing solely on work between 9am and 5pm and only their personal lives in the hours between. Flexible work arrangements, working from home initiatives, and the general way work is done has changed expectations for normal work hours.

That being said, there are still organizations that block social media feeds and access to internet shopping sites from the work IP address. These practices are becoming antiquated and may actually hinder your social media goals.

Even if your employees can’t access social media via their work computer, most people have a smart phone that gives them access to any place on the internet they want to go. Instead of making social media engagement a taboo practice at work, encourage employees to share, and instead of telling them which sites they can or cannot access and what they can or cannot say and respond to, offer a suggestion for best practices. Encourage employees to engage in the types of social media conversations that grow their own networks and improve their digital images -- and yours.

#4 DON’T publish or otherwise disclose company confidential information either electronically or otherwise

As much as possible, stay away from definite “Don’ts.” There are only a few exceptions to this rule of thumb. In this case, it seems like you shouldn’t have to even have this as a guideline, since common sense dictates that company confidential information is just that, confidential.

However, once it’s in writing, no one can say that they didn’t know. It’s a simple as that. No further explanation is really necessary.

#5 DON’T respond to any competitor or other person posting negative reviews or comments about the company

Although this is #5 on the list, I feel it is one of the most important guidelines. For everyone. When we are attacked, people naturally want to strike back. Social media is not exception and, in fact, the temptation is even greater. While most people will back down in a face to face confrontation to avoid escalating the situation, social media removes the physical barriers to giving it right back to the aggressor.

My advice. Don’t. Ever. If your company is the victim of internet trolls, disgruntled employees, or unhappy customers, respond immediately with an offer to discuss further, offline. If your employees see a comment about the company, they should be directed to inform the social media manager at your organization immediately, instead of responding themselves. Flame wars, whether propagated by the company or by its employees, never result in positive public opinion. Even if you feel you’ve been wronged, responding in a defensive way only gives more fuel to the flame war fire and often backfires to make the complainant look justified.

If your competitors are spreading information that reflects poorly on your company, your social media manager will need to design and campaign to publicize the facts in a positive way. Communicate directly and clearly to your employees that these matters are best handled by one person who steers the social media messaging and strategy.

Bonus: Use common sense

Perhaps the best advice for your employees is to rely on their own common sense when posting and responding on social media. Preparing social media guidelines, distributing them to your entire organization, and including them in onboarding materials will encourage your employees to be more thoughtful in their social media messaging. Creating organizational norms encourages employees to share your thought leadership while improving their own online professional images.