In 2022, social media is an ingrained part of most of our lives. People have a tendency to think of their social media profiles as relatively private, or at least separate from work. For better or for worse, however, your job and your social media are probably not as separate as you’d like to think. Treating social media as a place where you can say and share whatever you want, free of consequence, can be a costly mistake.
It’s important to use social media responsibly, and always be cognizant that what you’re posting could be visible to a much wider audience than you intended – including your employer!
What Should Employees be Aware of When it Comes to Social Media?
There are two broad areas of concern when it comes to social media and the workplace.
First, social media use at the office or during work hours can be a distraction and lead to disciplinary issues (but most people already understand that it’s best to stay off Facebook while you’re at work).
The second concern with social media boils down to off-duty conduct by employees.
It’s important to understand that social media is basically a public space. In fact, it’s generally even more visible – anything you say on social media is saved for posterity. When you have a conversation with friends at a restaurant, most of what was said will be lost to history. Have that same conversation on social media, and every word is likely to be saved on a server and remain visible for years to come.
Even if your accounts are private, people who follow you can take screenshots with a couple clicks. You never know where these images can end up.
If you list your employer somewhere on a social media account, like many people do on Facebook, for example, then anything you post on that account can immediately be tied back to the company you’re working for.
Even if you don’t explicitly mention your employer in a profile, app integrations have made it easier than ever to figure out who someone works for with just a name and a photo.
If you’re using social media to complain about your employer specifically, obviously that could lead to disciplinary action. But something that many people don’t consider is that there can be legal repercussions for anything you post. If you’re sharing opinions that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or simply contrary to your employer’s mission and culture, your employer can catch wind of this, and if they do, they can enact consequences.
Employees are allowed to have their own opinions, and some key beliefs (such as political or religious beliefs) are protected at work under the BC Human Rights Code. But these rules protect employees from discrimination on a limited basis – they don’t exempt you from following workplace policy, and they don’t exempt you from the consequences of criminal or defamatory conduct.
None of this is new – this is an issue that’s been occurring for as long as social media has really been a thing. Even if you’re using social media in your own free time, it’s false to think that whatever you do on your own time is none of your employer’s business.
How Can Employers Use Policy to Discourage Social Media Misconduct?
We recommend that all employers have some sort of social media policy in place. How detailed your policy is will depend on the size and scope of your organization.
There are a few key points that all social media policies should include:
Expectations for employees’ use of social media in the office or during work hours
Expectations for general conduct on social media outside of work hours
A clear no-tolerance policy for online harassment and hate speech
An outline of consequences for violating social media policy
Setting out expectations for reasonable social media use during work hours is fairly straightforward – most employers don’t want their workers to be constantly scrolling through Instagram instead of working, and most employees understand this. At the same time, most people can’t be productive for eight hours straight, every single day, and more workplaces are shifting to a model that emphasizes productivity over time spent. As long as an employee is productive and engaged with their colleagues and management, checking Instagram occasionally during the day probably isn’t a problem.
The meat of a social media policy should be devoted to identifying how you want employees to conduct themselves on social media in general or, more specifically, how they should not conduct themselves. In many cases, employers will want to discourage employees from tying themselves to the company on social media. Employees should at the very least be made aware that anything they say on social media can potentially have consequences, and they should conduct themselves in a responsible and respectful manner regardless of the situation.
A social media policy should also identify what the consequences will be for violations. If a worker is posting racist or extremist remarks on social media, engaging in bullying or harassment, getting into huge public battles with other employees, or otherwise conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner that causes reputational harm to the company, it is legal for the company to seek disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal for cause, depending on the circumstances. The consequences of a given action should fit the severity of the violation.
In a nutshell, like any workplace policy, a social media policy should identify your expectations, and the consequences for not meeting those expectations.
What if I Want my Employees to Promote my Business on Social Media?
If you do want your employees to promote your company on their personal social media accounts, then the social media policy should go into more detail with tips, guidance, and branding standards for that type of social media use.
If you plan on openly connecting with your employees on social media, then employees will probably need to be trained on social media etiquette.
The more common and more cautious approach, however, is to discourage your employees from mentioning your company at all on social media. Employees should not be made to feel like they can’t post their own personal views and thoughts – but they should be made aware that social media isn’t necessarily a private, secure haven where they can say anything.
Social Media Guidelines for Former Employees
All of this deals with current employees, but what about former employees?
There are two things to be aware of when it comes to social media use by former employees: defamation, and disclosure of confidential or proprietary information.
Once an employee leaves your organization, their personal opinions are no longer tied to your organization. If an employee leaves your company and later starts posting some questionable content, there’s not much you can do about it. It doesn’t have much bearing on your company.
However, if a former employee is posting defamatory content about your company specifically, then you can potentially bring a defamation lawsuit against them. Likewise, if the former employee starts sharing proprietary or confidential information on social media after their employment ends, there can be legal consequences.
A good rule of thumb for employees is: before you post something on social media, imagine if you were overheard saying it in the office lunchroom. What would your employer’s reaction be? If you can imagine your employer having a negative reaction in person, think twice about posting it.
It’s easier than you think for you to be identified and traced back to an employer. Things like company vehicles, company logos on clothing, or photos shared from physical offices can all easily be tied back to you. If it’s online and not anonymous, or it’s being shared to a group, the safe assumption is that that information will filter back to your employer at some point.
Talking about an employer on social media is always going to be higher risk than complaining to a coworker in a pub or to your spouse at home. And if someone brings a lawsuit against you and can provide screenshots, it’s going to be tough to defend yourself.
All this isn’t to say that you need to quit social media entirely – just that you should be using the same level of respect, courtesy, and professionalism on social media as you would in the workplace or in public.
Have questions about social media and the workplace? Don’t hesitate to call us or send us an email. We’re here to help.