An office worker was fired after her employer discovered her sex blog.  A waitress was fired for venting about a customer on Facebook.  A woman lost a job offer at Cisco because of something she said on Twitter.  These incidents illustrate why it might be wise to create a social media policy for your employees.

"I would say it is absolutely crucial for any size business with employees to have a social media policy," said Vivienne Storey, general manager of BlandsLaw, a boutique law firm outside of Sydney, Australia, that specializes in employment law.  Storey also writes for the firm's blog on social-media policy issues. "If you don't, how do you manage and monitor what is being said about the company and how social media is used?"

A social media policy outlines for employees the corporate guidelines or principles of communicating in the online world.  Do you need an explicit social media policy? We'll outline steps to make that decision, as well as what to include and how to implement the new policy.

Writing a Social Media Policy: Deciding When to Create a Social Media Policy

A social media policy can be a company's first line of defense to mitigate risk for both employer and employee.  You may already have a confidentiality agreement but it might not be enough. Adding a few lines in the employee handbook to clarify that the confidentiality agreement covers employee interactions on social media sites might suffice.  But it is advised to create a separate social media policy to have something specific on file and accessible to employees and that they are aware of the policies existence.

Jason Falls, a social media strategist at Social Media Explorer LLC in Louisville, Kentucky, thinks companies should have several social media policies.  "Part of the problem is that social media policy is a misnomer," Falls says.  "It's more than just telling employees what they can and cannot do on company computers." 

Here is a list of some social media policies Falls suggests companies should consider creating:

•    Employee Code of Conduct for Online Communications
•    Employee Code of Conduct for Company Representation in Online Communications
•    Employee Blogging Disclosure Policy
•    Employee Facebook Usage Policy
•    Employee Personal Blog Policy
•    Employee Personal Social Network Policy
•    Employee Personal Twitter Policy
•    Employee LinkedIn Policy
•    Corporate Blogging Policy
•    Corporate Blog Use Policy
•    Corporate Blog Post Approval Process
•    Corporate Blog Commenting Policy
•    Corporate Facebook Brand Page Usage Policy
•    Corporate Facebook Public Comment/Messaging Policy
•    Corporate Twitter Account Policy
•    Corporate YouTube Policy
•    Corporate YouTube Public Comment Policy
•    Company Password Policy

"While it may seem frivolous to spell out policies for every social network, that's not quite the point," Falls says.  "Different networks have different implications for different companies."

There are two approaches to creating a social media policy.  You can write one complete social media policy that addresses all currently available social mediums.  Or you can write polices as you need them.  For example, if your company doesn't have a social media presence on YouTube you may not need to address YouTube and video usage.  But as your business expands you add a YouTube policy later.

"I'd say there are two broad reasons for having a social media set of guidelines for every company: crisis management or brand opportunity," says Mario Sundar, community evangelist at LinkedIn.  "Social media may be a huge opportunity for your employees to help build your company's brand, but let's not forget that there also exists a tremendous risk for individual employees to inadvertently damage the company's brand and by defining a set of guidelines you help mitigate that risk."

Writing a Social Media Policy: What You Should Include

Social media is about sharing and collaboration.  For this reason Sundar thinks the best way to create a policy is to find what he calls the "social media evangelists" from within your company.  "Bring in your most active social media employees to collaborate and help craft your social media guidelines."  Including employees in the process creates internal advocates for the policy.  The policy should be more about what employees can do and best practices for social media use versus all the things employees can't or shouldn't do on social media. 

When crafting a policy, be sure to:

1.    Remind employees to familiarize themselves with the employment agreement and policies included in the employee handbook.

2.    State that the policy applies to multi-media, social networking websites, blogs and wikis for both professional and personal use.

3.    Internet postings should not disclose any information that is confidential or proprietary to the company or to any third party that has disclosed information to the company.

4.    If an employee comments on any aspect of the company's business they must clearly identify themselves as an employee and include a disclaimer.

5.    The disclaimer should be something like "the views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of (your companies name)."

6.    Internet postings should not include company logos or trademarks unless permission is asked for and granted.

7.    Internet postings must respect copyright, privacy, fair use, financial disclosure, and other applicable laws.

8.    Employees should neither claim nor imply that they are speaking on the company's behalf.

9.    Corporate blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc., could require approval when the employee is posting about the company and the industry.

10.    That the company reserves the right to request the certain subjects are avoided, withdraw certain posts, and remove inappropriate comments.

When creating a social media policy you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Several companies including Cisco, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Razorfish have developed clear-yet-comprehensive social media policies.  If you are looking for some good examples of social media guidelines from various companies the Social Media Governance website has an online database of over 100 social media policies.

Falls recommends the Social Media Policies Toolkit offered by Toolkit Café for $149.  The toolkit features templates for different types of social media policies. Storey says: "There are many websites that you can copy social media policies from, but I would also say get a lawyer involved and make sure your policy is customized to your company.

(Note: While this guide is comprised of things experts we've interviewed say it's safe to include, it should not be construed as legal advice.)

Writing a Social Media Policy: Professional Use and Encouraging Personal Use of Social Media

A corporate social media policy lets employees know what they need to know to communicate the company message effectively, and what they should and should not do.

"Your staff, clients and corporations are already on social media and will more than likely be talking about your company," says Katrina Collier, founder and director of Winning Impression LTD, a London based firm that helps companies with social recruitment.  "Clear guidelines will ensure that your company brand is enhanced and that your reputation is not sullied by an errant remark."

It is beneficial for employees to have their input in to the companies' social media.  They may have great insight and opinions to share with customers and clients. Employees are an amazing resource and can help you promote your business on social networks.

Writing a Social Media Policy: How to Implement the Policy

The lesson to learn from the examples of employee firings and how some companies have chosen to address social media is to make the policy as clear as possible.  

The best formats for this policy is to first state the policy and follow with a bulleted breakout of the key points. Microsoft's policy includes a frequently asked questions section that further clarifies the policy for employees. Catherine Allen, vice president at SHIFT Communication a public relations agency with offices in Boston, San Francisco, and New York, suggested offering guidelines or best practices. Allen's firm created a draft of social media recommendations that companies can tweak to fit their needs.  "Our firm created this based on hours of research on other companies guidelines, to help streamline the process for our clients."
Once the social media policy has been finalized, it is important to let your employees know there has been a change to the employee agreement that each employee signed when they were hired. An e-mail or memo should be sent to all employees including a copy of the new policy or a link to where they can reference the policy.  Educating your employees on the social media policy will help to curb mishaps.

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Writing a Social Media Policy: Additional Resources