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Recently, CBS fired a legal executive in their organization over comments she posted on Facebook after the tragic incident in Las Vegas. The executive, who is an attorney and was Vice President and Senior Counsel in Strategic Transactions at CBS, posted her comment just hours after the tragedy. Without reposting what she said or opening the can of political worms related to her comment, suffice it to say that what she wrote was deemed by many to be emotionally-charged, callous and politically-volatile, and – of course — it quickly spread on social media and through online news outlets. Shortly thereafter, the executive was fired from her job. She had been employed by CBS for about a year. A CBS spokesperson said that “Her views as expressed on social media are deeply unacceptable to all of us at CBS.”
This begs the question, can the things that employees say or do in their private lives affect their employment? Given the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, can an employer terminate an employee for a comment made on his/her own time on his/her own personal social media page? Is there a separation between personal and professional? The answer to all of these questions is basically yes. Yes, the CBS executive’s comment on social media is protected by the First Amendment and she cannot be arrested or punished by the government for her comment. And, yes, there is a line that separates personal from professional, but thanks to social media, that line is more blurry. Her freedom to speak her mind does not protect her from being fired from her job for violating professional standards of conduct, especially if she had an employment contract and was upheld to certain professional standards as an attorney. For those that bristle that this is just “political correctness,” it’s not. This is about being “professionally correct,” not “politically correct.” Thanks to social media, professional correctness is the new PC. So what exactly are the rules for being professionally correct and are those rules hard and fast regardless of a person’s position and employer? Are the professional standards of conduct the same for everyone?
Posting with Care
While it may seem like common sense that professionals should “post with care” on social media, apparently common sense is not that common. Even a highly-trained attorney didn’t use common sense to know that as both an attorney and a high-level representative of a global media company, her comments would be held to a higher standard of conduct. In an emotional moment, she posted in haste. While a person is entitled to express his or her own views, her views should not harm her employer brand’s reputation which is worth millions, if not billions.
A Social Media Policy for Your Company: Yes or No?
Certainly CBS has a Social Media Policy and almost as certainly the executive violated it. Today, most companies, government agencies and major organizations have an official Social Media Policy governing how employees and related parties interact on social media sites. A Social Media Policy is beneficial for both the employer and employees for several reasons.
- It helps protect a company’s reputation.
- It defends against legal troubles and security risks.
- It empowers employees to share authorized company messaging.
- It creates consistency across all media channels
- It clarifies the boundaries for posting on social media as it relates to employment.
The goal of a Social Media Policy isn’t to discourage employees from being active on social media. It is to control the narrative, streamline the messaging as it relates to the company, and ensure that no harm is done.
Given today’s social media landscape, every company, large or small and regardless of industry, probably should have a Social Media Policy. There are a number of factors that Human Resources should consider including when crafting a Social Media Policy for the company. Here are some sample points from global companies as diverse as Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard, Los Angeles Times, Best Buy, Adidas, Gap, IBM, and others.
Social Media Policy Suggestions
- When posting on a personal basis, employees are allowed to associate themselves with the company but they must clearly brand their person online social media posts as personal and purely their own, freeing the company from any intellectual investment in the post. The company should not be held liable for any repercussions the employees’ content may generate.
- When engaging in social media conversations on the company’s behalf, be respectful, polite and patient. Be extra careful when making declarations or promises towards customers. Also, avoid speaking on matters outside your field of expertise when possible. Do not answer questions or make statements that fall under somebody else’s responsibility.
- Be transparent. Use your real name, and if identifying that you work for the company, be clear about your role.
- Principles of integrity, professionalism, privacy and impartiality should be observed when posting online. Add value to social conversations, but keep it professional.
- While the company values, respects, and upholds the intellectual property rights of its bloggers and promotes healthy and honest discourse with its readers, it reserves the right to edit or amend any misleading or inaccurate content depicted in blog posts. The company also reserves the right to delete blog posts violating the code of conduct.
- Content pertaining to sensitive company information (particularly any found within internal networks) should not be shared with the online community. Divulging information like the company’s design plans, sales trends, strategies, forecasts, future promotional activities, financial data, internal operations and legal matters are prohibited, as well as any information that pertains to clients and customers.
- Do not post confidential or non-public information.
- Do not respond to an offensive or negative post by a customer or vendor.
- Proper copyright and reference laws should be observed by employees when posting online.
- Do not write posts or blogs that contain content that dishonors others including disparaging remarks about physical or personal traits.
- Be careful discussing things where emotions run high (e.g. politics and religion) and show respect for others’ opinions and feelings.
- Unless the person is an authorized Social Media Manager for the company, don’t let social media affect job performance.
- Correct social media mistakes immediately and report serious errors to the Social Media Manager. Be clear about what was done to fix it.
- The authenticity of what employees post is important. Verify questionable content with credible sources before posting or tweeting about it.
- Do not commit the company to any action unless you have the authority to do so.
- When representing yourself as an employee of the company on a social networking site such as LinkedIn, do not provide professional references for current or former company employees, contractors, or vendors who worked for the company. A personal reference or recommendation can be provided as long as the statements and information are true.
- Respect privacy. To ensure the privacy of personal blogs and social networking sites is preserved, do not ask employees, colleagues, or job applicants for personal or social networking login information or passwords.
- Do not publish or post materials that can be deemed maliciously false, abusive, threatening or defamatory. Also, do not post content that is discriminatory, harassing, or in violation of the company’s policies.
- Do not publish comments meant to intentionally harm someone’s reputation, posts that could contribute to a hostile work environment or remarks disparaging a person’s physical or personal traits.
- Do not unlawfully disparage the company’s products or services, or the products or services of the company’s vendors or competitors.
- Do not spend company time on social media sites, unless it is work-related. Employees who neglect their job duties to spend time on social media will certainly have a decline in productivity and that will be reflected on their performance reviews.
Of course, high-level employees with employee contracts and codes of professional conduct for their profession, such as attorneys and journalists, must adhere to an even stricter, higher standard, and must adopt an even more cautious stance when sharing their opinions on social media.
With a Social Media Policy that includes points such as these, most companies are able to clearly communicate to employees where the boundaries are for what is and what is NOT acceptable when it comes to social media. Once the lines are clear, then every employee is free to engage in social media while still being professionally correct.
Quote of the Week
“We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media. The question is how well we do it.” Erik Qualman
© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.