Social Media Policies: Where do you draw the Line?

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To limit or not employees’ access to social media accounts is a major concern among many companies worldwide, and there seems to be a fine line between what is fair and what isn’t in this area. Employers want productivity and some think social media is a disturbing factor for employees. On the other hand, employees say that limiting their social media presence restricts their freedom of speech and it’s a breach of their rights.

The Baltimore Fire Department recently announced such a social media policy that immediately draw criticism and was accused as being launched without personnel consultations and of limiting employees constitutional rights.

The policy requires “good judgment” and “courtesy and respect to the public and to fellow employees” and forbids firefighters to post information and photos of fire scenes. The situation is delicate, as both parties have strong arguments. The company states that this policy was in fact created to protect employees from getting into trouble for sharing sensitive information, as posts with sensitive information and often incorrect details have been spotted. Firefighters, on the other hand, argue that these rules are “troubling” and might be unconstitutional.

But the First Amendment’s reach does not cover countries all over the world. Some UAE businesses restrict social media access completely or partially according to a study among 900 IT professionals. Bolivia proposes a law regulating social media as they argue that constructive criticism to political parties and candidates is useful, but that it is not OK to be disrespectful or to use “communications mechanisms to plant hatred against the government, to harm the image of our president.”

Social networks like Facebook, Google+ or Twitter are the perfect places for people to share their thoughts. Anonymously or under their real name, people all over the world are able to say where they are and what they think about any subject. But that’s not quite accurate, as different social media sites are banned in several countries. Let’s not forget that in January Twitter introduced a technology based on which it can censor messages on a country by country basis.

The London 2012 Olympic Games also enforced blogging, social media and internet regulations for participants and other accredited persons which, among others, forbade athletes to post videos, tweet in the first person in a diary-type format and post about the games as they happened, or comment on the activities of other participants. Some incidents occurred anyway. For instance a 17-year-old was arrested for writing offensive tweets about an Olympic diver and a Greek triple jumper was sent home after he posted racist comments on Twitter.

What we can see from all of these examples is that some people will always break the rules. Moreover, it is difficult to restrict social media presence. Some departments or even areas of business need social media to promote themselves. Employees can help companies gain awareness. They are the primary brand representatives of a company, and when they write about their job or working place they are believed to be truthful and not to lie. But indeed there is the question of how often they access social media sites and for how long.

Studies even suggest that such networks are addictive and there is such a thing as internet addiction. A business needs to make money and employees to perform their duties. Perhaps it is not the perfect choice to completely forbid their access to social media sites, but maybe a social media policy with clear guidelines could be more useful. And companies could follow in the footsteps of big brands that have such clear and public rules. Intel for instance has 3 rules of engagement: disclose – be transparent, truthful and be yourself, protect – don’t disclose confidential information, don’t tell secrets and don’t slam the competition or Intel, and use common sense – add value, keep it cool and admit when you did something wrong and correct it. IBM also has a comprehensive list of guidelines for blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds and social media.

Forbidding something rarely leads to the desired results. Encouraging people to express themselves and trying to draw some lines that will protect the company could be a better solution. Consulting employees when creating the guidelines could also be a solution for some companies, but nothing can satisfy all the people and that’s something we should not forget.

It is difficult to offer a panacea solution for every scenario. In the end it is a matter of responsibility for each person, as in the end each and everyone is responsible for what they post online, regardless of the channel used. Different people have different tastes and ways of expression, and the Internet is a mirror of that.

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