The benefits of social media cannot be disputed. The rise of social media has afforded the man on the street a public platform and the opportunity to stay connected and engage with others around the world in ways never anticipated before. An increasing amount of people are utilising social media platforms for both personal and professional purposes. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Google+ have become standard ways in which information is communicated effectively and immediately. This has made many companies realise the need to take their businesses online, both in an effort to keep up with the times and to attract a wider pool of customers by promoting their businesses online, enhancing their brand visibility and using social media to gauge and improve their customer satisfaction.
But careless use of social media has become a prominent topic in the news recently. Despite the many advantages of this new digital age in which social networking has become the norm, the law has yet to develop effective mechanisms to address issues and mitigate the risks involved with the downsides of social media use. It is therefore imperative that businesses and employees remain well versed on the dangers associated with irresponsible social media use and the accompanying reputational harm that may be caused. In the age of social media, where material can go viral in a matter of minutes, it is crucial for employers to set out clear policy guidelines on acceptable social media use and the repercussions of stepping out of line. This is where a social media policy comes in.
A social media policy can be described as a corporate code of conduct which provides clear parameters for what is considered acceptable conduct on social media sites and what behaviour will not be tolerated. Ideally the policy should also highlight the consequences for breaching the company`s social media policy and have effective enforcement mechanisms in place to encourage compliance therewith. This will also help the employer to justify disciplinary action when the employee steps out of line.
Fact is, employers may face brand damage, reputational harm and suffer consequential loss of business from unsavoury posts or comments made on their business accounts or by employees of the business on their personal accounts. The ease by which a thoughtless comment or emotionally-fuelled post can bring an employer into disrepute and destroy client relationships is a reality of social media, and one which may cause irreparable harm if left unchecked. However, employers need to strike a balance between respecting their employee`s privacy and protecting their business interests. A social media policy can therefore be an effective means of managing employees’ conduct by limiting personal social media use during working hours, making sure that employees understand the risks associated with misusing social media and that they know what is expected of them. Such a policy should also clearly define what can be considered as libellous in terms of the company’s image in the general market place, and the consequences of such statements.
In a company`s social media policy, employers should therefore distinguish between, and cover both, employees` personal social media use (during and after work hours) as well as employees` use of social media for business purposes.
It is also important to understand that a company still needs a social media policy notwithstanding the fact that the business might not have its own social media accounts. As the majority of employees are engaging on social media platforms, their actions may cause harm to their employers even when the employer has no social media presence. Employers may be held liable for posts or comments made by employees on their own personal social media pages. For example, in terms of the Employment Equity Act, employers may be held liable for acts of unfair discrimination (which includes harassment) committed by their employees, unless it can be shown that the employer took reasonable steps to prevent contraventions of the aforementioned Act.
Employers should not underestimate the significance of establishing a sound social media policy in our current digital age. Having a social media policy that is applied consistently and communicated to employees will go a long way towards protecting your company`s brand and reputation as well as managing your company`s liability.