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Is it fair for employers to set rules for your personal social media posts?

Posting nasty comments about a client or advertiser on a company’s social media channel is a fast click to the unemployment line. But what if you posted the same nasty comment on your own personal Twitter account? Is that grounds for dismissal?

If you work for the Washington Post or dozens of other media outlets, it could be.

According to The Washingtonian, the Post’s new social media policy prohibits employees from posting any social media content that “adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners.” Doing so could lead to disciplinary action “up to and including termination of employment”.

This may sound unfair, harsh and in conflict with freedom of speech but there are a few angles we must consider. In the present day (where we’re all living), the dividing line between our business life and our personal life is mighty thin. And when you’re talking about reporters, teachers and freelancers, that line is non-existent.

Have you ever read the bios people put on their social media account? Even though they’re personal accounts, a large number of people include the name of their employer in their bio.

“I’m an avid bike rider and a journalist at the Anytown Bugle.”

 “Mother, wife, dog breeder, developer @CoolVideoGameCo”

It’s nice to see people who are proud of their work, but when they include this information on a public channel, the employee and the employer become socially and often awkwardly intertwined.

Let’s set aside those horrendous, ‘what were they thinking’ posts and talk about average, everyday venting. Suppose Steve, the bike rider from the Bugle, gets sick after eating lunch at Anytown Buffet, then posts an angry rant on Instagram including video from the hospital. Think the Buffet is going to run their full-page ad in the Bugle after that?

I’d like to think that people aren’t this vindictive but when we’re wounded, we tend to fight back using the biggest club we can find. In this case, rather than challenge journalist Steve directly, the Buffet puts the pressure on Steve’s employer, hoping they’ll meddle in Steve’s business and make the offending post go away.

I know that sounds a bit Machiavellian, but imagine how you’d feel if an employee of one of your clients or customers posted unkind words about you on social media? Would you give the employer a pass?

What’s hard about implementing such a harshly worded social media policy is that it could backfire. Especially when you include a clause imploring employees to point fingers if their co-workers break the rules. (Yes, really.) Is there a better way? Yes. Ask, don’t tell.

Most employees don’t set out to destroy your company’s reputation. They lose their temper or have something important to say and they don’t even consider the ramifications. So, instead of stringently forbidding your employees from posting what they want, ask them to kindly think twice before posting any content that might embarrass the company.

You can also ask employees to post a social media disclaimer (views are mine. . . sort of thing). Though this won’t save you if they go way off the rails, it’s a good, first line of defense.

As you build out your social media policy for employees, don’t forget to mention the good along with the bad. A VP might be excited by soaring sales, but posting financial information could get you all in trouble with the SEC.

Bottom line: in the last five years, social media has been a swift and vicious reputation killer. In a few cases, the poster set out to stir up trouble and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it. But in most cases, the offending post was a careless thought, a joke or taken out of context. Those are the incidents that could have been squashed with a little social media training.

Here’s your homework for the week: dig up your social media policy (or write one if you don’t have one) and send it out to all of your employees. Then, if possible, hold a staff meeting to review the policy so you know everyone – literally – got the memo.

And while you’re on the social media wagon, change the passwords on the company accounts because I can bet that most of you have never changed them since you set them up, years ago.

I know you’re busy, but spending a few hours getting your social media house in order now, beats spending weeks digging out from under social media blunder.

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