Three Key Characteristics of a Smart Social Media Policy

In my 17 years as a senior level HR practitioner, I’ve seen good and bad corporate policies. The only real difference between the two is that good policies are those that employees follow. Social media policies are no exception. But the most effective policies don’t just keep employees in line. They set consistent, clear, and common-sense guidelines that free employees to do their jobs better.

Here are three key characteristics that should define your social media policy:

1. It’s Clear

Your employees need to understand why the policy is needed; this doesn’t mean they have to agree with that reason. It’s unrealistic to believe people will automatically support your policies. And telling employees to follow policies “because we say so” is more likely to increase resistance rather than acceptance. Instead, the key is providing context. The best way to increase employee buy-in is to frame policies within a context to which they can relate. For example:

“Because we want to guarantee consistent external messaging by our company, only employees who have received prior training and written permission from the marketing department to blog on behalf of our company are allowed to do so.”

Good policies also are followed because they clearly spell out what’s expected from whom, and in which situations. What’s the scope of the policy, and who are the employees to which it applies? What kinds of social media activities are covered? Does the policy apply to all employees? What about contract staff? The devil is definitely in the details. If employees lack clarity around these issues, they’ll turn to making educated guesses — the very thing you’re trying to eliminate by implementing policies.

2. It’s Consistent

Research shows that our reactions to unfairness are actually hard-wired in the brain. No wonder employees, let alone toddlers, will lash out when they are being treated unfairly. Put bluntly, there’s no better way for companies to create utter disregard for policies and a lack of faith in management than to hold certain employees less accountable than others. For example, you never want to hear this from one of your employees:

“Well, I didn’t think it was a big deal to post that kind of comment on Facebook since I know my boss does it all the time on her personal blog. If she doesn’t have to get approval to do that, then why do I?”

This is why it’s critical that policies be applied consistently across all employee levels, geographic locations and functions. A lack of consistency can quickly lead to rogue behaviors. The only exception is when certain policies must be followed by specific subsets of employees due to legal or regulatory requirements. In this case, make sure all employees know who the policy applies to, and why it only applies to those people.

3. It’s Useful

Useful policies free employees to perform effectively by lowering their odds of making missteps. Your employees are some of your best brand ambassadors on social media. But if they don’t know what’s acceptable, they may shy away from this role for fear of hurting their careers due to an honest mistake. Similarly, companies that have invested significant resources in social media for collaboration and innovation will see a much larger return on that investment if employees are not afraid to use these tools.

Dealing with the “grey zone” of day-to-day operations is often the role of the line manager who is repeatedly called upon to answer questions for areas where written policies do and do not exist. But having clearly documented and easily accessible policies — especially for fast-moving issues like social media — will save both supervisor and subordinate from ever having to utter that age-old expression of horror, “If only I had known!”

Guest Post on Effortless HR Blog