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September 21, 2016

In July 2016, a Canadian arbitrator ruled that an employer had failed to adequately protect its employees from harassment on its official twitter account used for handling customer complaints.

Why is this news important to begin a post on social media policy with? Well, this is probably one of the first incidents where an employer has been reprimanded for harassment of its employees on social media by customers, and another reason for employers to scrutinize and assume greater accountability when implementing their corporate social media policies.

Organizations across the globe today are struggling to mitigate the potential threats posed by social media while using it to the benefit of their business. Social media – always championed as a much more democratized platform as compared to conventional offline media channels – is now compelling organizations, social marketers and digital strategists to rethink where and how the lines need to be drawn for employees using social media. Forums that have been abuzz with discussions on social media responsibility and cyber bullying involving individuals have since expanded to include organizations in past recent years. Adding to this complexity are the evolving labor laws laid down by governments worldwide to safeguard employee rights and counter policies that can be perceived as curtailing free speech.

The most recent incident involving an inappropriate tweet by a Jamaican manufacturer targeting their national gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics has stormed the internet social circles. Eventually, the corporate entity published an apology, along with condemning and firing the employee managing its Twitter handle. What might seem to some as a prompt and adequate condemnatory action by the company raises the question of how such an incident could have been avoided in the first place. In the US, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been increasingly scrutinizing social media policies of companies, and on finding anomalies, has come down heavily on many (including a multinational retailer, an engineering company, a direct broadcast satellite service provider, and several others). Recently, the NLRB reprimanded a famous American fast food chain for being harsh with an employee who criticized the company on social media. Also, on finding some of the companys social media policies against the law, the NLRB ordered them to be rescinded. These incidents have hammered home now more than ever, that in todays digital is default world, any organization not taking its social media policy seriously can find itself facing disaster, with its reputation at stake. For policy makers, the crisis lies in striking a fine balance between protecting the companys reputation without coming across as curbing individual rights to freedom of expression.

The way ahead
An effective social policy is built around education and not just policing. Its goal is to assist employees in reaping the benefits of social media effectively and at the same time, being wary of the various threats that can harm them as individuals as well as be detrimental to company image. The focus here should be on safeguarding employee interests as well, which may or may not be aligned with the employers. A majority of todays workforce have not undergone formal social awareness training programs during their academic years. It is therefore pertinent that these be conducted by the employers on a continuous basis, and not just as a checkpoint. Such continuous orientations will go a long way in creating a workforce that is both socially responsible and responsive. When similar courses are adopted into academic curriculums across the globe, an inevitability in the near future, implementing social media policies and programs in the workplace will become easier. An important aspect is for the policy makers and implementers to have sufficient understanding of the evolving labor laws that they are governed by. As is evident in several instances, neglecting these can cause irrevocable damage to a brands reputation and even loss of business.

While the VUCA world continues to toss new challenges for corporate social media policy makers, one thing is clear from recent events – merely having a social media policy is not going to be enough, and continuous measures are going to be needed by companies to educate employees, win over their confidence, and stay connected through internal channels. This area is going to see increase in investments and focus by those who mean serious business.

Syed Taha Mahmood handles Business Marketing in the TCS Digital Enterprise Group. In his experience exceeding 8.5 years, he has been involved in Marketing Strategy & Management, and Business Development. He holds an Engineering degree in Computer Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, a Management degree from S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai, and a Masters in IT from Virginia Tech, US.


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