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How should you handle social media as a small business employer?

April 30, 2015

It’s absolutely vital for a small business to maintain a good reputation. It can be the making or breaking of your company after all. Unlike bigger businesses that seem to shrug off really embarrassing moments and carry on, smaller businesses can find it impossible to recover from a tarnished reputation.

So managing how you and your employees represent your business on social media is crucial.

Many may just use it to interact with family and friends, but some – in the very rarest of cases – can use it to abuse, or say inappropriate things. And what if this is seen by your customers? Or they say something about work? Would you know how to handle it?

Have you updated your company policy to cover social media use?

There have been some very public cases recently where social media has caused employees, and employers, to be rather embarrassed. You may well have seen the story of Rayhan Qadar; the young Bristol stockbroker who made the national news when he tweeted on his way to work,

“Think I just hit a cyclist. But I’m late for work so had to drive off lol”.

It turned out that Rayhan hadn’t in fact hit anybody, but that didn’t stop a tirade of negative comments to his Twitter account, or even the police getting involved. The furore was more than a bit embarrassing for him and his employer.

To minimise the reputational damage, his employer Hargreaves Lansdown took swift action and terminated his employment within the day. After all, it was a matter of company policy that any misconduct on social media of this sort would result in dismissal.

This is something to consider to start with. Does your company policy adequately cover you for social media use? Some small businesses may not even think about it, but they almost certainly should in a world where word travels so fast.

A suitable ‘Social Media Policy’ can help protect your business

Social media use can be mentioned as part of a disciplinary or IT policy, or you can create a separate Social Media Policy, depending on your requirements.

The most important thing is to be very clear to your staff on how you expect them to behave when using company internet or IT, and when making personal use of social media outside work – that way than can be no question of what is and isn’t acceptable, and what will happen when employees break the rules.

Another example of when company policy could have helped in the dismissal of an employee who misused social media is Game Retail Ltd. vs. Laws – an Employment Appeal Tribunal case seen in the last year which relates specifically to Twitter use.

The (now former) employee having made numerous offensive remarks on his personal Twitter account, seen by many members of the retailer’s staff, one of whom lodged a complaint.

Eventually it was ruled that – although he argued his account was personal and he had no specific affiliation with the company – the comments made by the employee were very public and he had made no attempt to make them private in any way, in full knowledge he was followed by 65 of the company’s stores.

Not only was it almost surely an embarrassing episode for the retailer, and could have been expensive if the verdict had gone another way, it also turned out that the individual was responsible for monitoring company Twitter activity!

Again, if you put in place a suitable social media policy it will make situations like this – although a rather special case – that bit simpler for you to manage and protect your company’s reputation.

What should be included in a social media policy?

Your social media policy should make very clear what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour by employees. That way there can be no question should anything happen. However there are a couple of other things to think about when instigating this measure.

First, a simple addition of “all views expressed are my own” on their bio can help to mitigate damage, especially if they identify themselves as an employee of yours.

You’ll also want to give guidance on security settings that employees should have, and a clear indication giving examples of behaviour you see as unacceptable – e.g. sharing offensive images, using offensive language, making comments about customers or colleagues among them.

There are also other considerations to take into account when deciding on social media policy. For example, in the hair and beauty industry where social media is embraced as a great way to attract new clients and show off work, employers may want to take steps to control use.

Is it acceptable for employees to make ‘friends’ with customers? This is essential to consider as part of a company’s wider business. After all, customers may not want to see photos of the staff’s boozy night out just before they’re due in for a trim!

Also, how much can employees show off their work on their personal profile? You don’t want them to start courting a new employer!

Being too restrictive can hamper your business

However, there’s a delicate balance when restricting employees’ use of social media – it’s a proven avenue for customer engagement and is a fast way to build a brand and reputation around your people and the way they help individuals find the product or services they need.

For more on this, read; 6 ways to protect your brand and grow your business reputation in a social world

Despite it being a clear area where personal and work life can merge, there’s yet to be any clear guidance on how to ‘control’ employees’ social media use from the courts. It’s therefore vital that you, as an employer, have a clear social media policy to minimise any uncertainty about what is or isn’t acceptable behaviour on social media, and what you will do should staff members breach company policy.

About the author

This article was written for ByteStart by Kirsty Senior is Co-founder and Director of citrusHR – a fresh approach to HR for small businesses.

More help on ByteStart

For more tips and guidance on staff-related issues, try some of our other guides;

And here’s some help on reaping the benefits of social media;