Policy & Practice

Policy Overkill

Reprinted from my “Practical Business Radical Column” in The Business Press

When new technology or use of technology is discovered, two things inevitably happen: first, people immediately find negative uses for it. Then second because of these people, companies around the world decide that this new discovery requires a policy. The policy starts simple, outlining the parameters for use of whatever this new discovery is – a computer, the Internet, e-mail. It protects the company. It protects the employees. It might even be effective until the pages of the policy begin multiplying like rabbits – 20 pages turn into 40 pages, which turn into 100 pages.   All of sudden the policy is so long that no employee actually reads it.

With social media quickly becoming the new national pastime, companies are rushing to put social media policies in place, some heading straight for policy overkill. Policies in general are often viewed as a way to control employee behavior – put a dress code policy in place, and employees are required  to dress a certain way. Companies who approach the development of a social media policy with the same end result in mind are misguided. Companies who believe that putting a 40-page social media policy in place is going to allow them to control what their employees say and do online are missing the point and losing out on the possibilities of social media. Social media is not about controlling the conversation, it is about being a part of the conversation and the conversation could benefit your company.

When I was crafting the social media policy for our company, I knew I didn’t want a 40-page document that would kill the spirit of social media participation. I found inspiration through IBM’s policy, which they openly publish on their website, and through a great post by Sharlyn Lauby on Mashable.com entitled “10 Must Haves for Your Social Media Policy.” I boiled the core ideas down to ten simple guidelines.

Here’s our policy (yes, this is the exact wording): First, tell the truth. Second, have a purpose. Like everything else in life, reaching your goals is a lot easier when you have some clue what you’re trying to accomplish. Then, add value. Bottom line: say something helpful, or witty, or informative. The world doesn’t need to know what you ate for breakfast this morning. Fourth, be authentic. This is not the place to develop an alter-ego. Let people know who you really are and what you do. Fifth, speak for yourself. Your opinions may not always be the same as the organization’s. And that’s cool. Just make sure that your presence in the social media world is in the first person – lots of “I” and not so much “we”. Sixth, play nice. Respect people. Don’t be mean. Don’t call people names. Don’t use racial slurs. Don’t use foul language. Don’t be a jerk.

Seventh, respect copyright and fair use. Don’t use people’s stuff without giving them credit (and don’t use stuff you’re not allowed to use). That’s just tacky. And in some cases, it also happens to be illegal. Eighth, if it’s confidential, keep it that way.
You don’t like people sharing your personal business without your permission. So if somebody has told you that information is confidential, keep it that way. Ninth, be social. Don’t be in a one-way social media relationship. If people comment on your blog, respond nicely to their comments. It’s called “social” media for a reason.

And finally, use common sense. We try to hire employees who have common sense and we trust them to use it. Think of social media as a giant world-wide billboard. What you post can be seen by anyone – your boss, your co-workers, your mom. You don’t need a poorly chosen Tweet to wreck havoc on the organization or your life.

That is it, our policy – simple, to the point, and actually encouraging employees to participate in social media. If you find that a significant number of employees are saying awful things about your company online, it is highly likely that there is something wrong with your company, not something wrong with your employees. Trying to stifle your employees (or your customers) will only make them speak up more loudly and more frequently. Your employees and your customers are the best tools you have for understanding how your business needs to improve. They are talking about you online whether you are listening or not. Don’t kill the conversation with a policy. Take a step back and listen instead.

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