Social Media for Small Biz: Your HR Survival Guide

Have you thought about what you’d do if one of your employees started tweeting about what a terrible boss you are? Or wrote Facebook status updates about your stupid business problems?

And what about the positive side? That sales person who built up a fabulous list of contacts on LinkedIn? Who owns those contacts? What about the marketing manager who tweets positive things about the company at your request? Who owns that Twitter handle?

If you’d like to just put the pillow back over your head and go back to sleep, I don’t blame you.  Social media management can be a big pain the rear end.  Sometimes it seems better just to stay off the Internet altogether, rather than navigate the minefield that exists around it.

But even if you stay off the Internet, your employees don’t.

You need a social media policy. And you need one now, because if you wait until you have a problem, it will be too late.

Where to Draw the Line

John Theriault, who runs Truventis, a social media management consulting firm (that’s a job that didn’t exist five years ago!) advises companies on how to manage social media in the workplace.  First, he says, it’s critical that employers understand what kind of speech is protected and what kind of speech is not protected.

“Trashing a customer is not considered protected speech,” Theriault told me in a phone interview, “but prohibiting employees from saying anything negative is illegal.” For instance, you can’t prohibit your employees from complaining about their pay, as the law considers that protected speech.

Additionally, you have to look at the context around a social media post. No matter what you see, you need to keep your cool. Angry people make bad decisions. Bad decisions will get you sued.

It also turns out that an employee’s choice of words can also dictate whether it’s legal to discipline them for their online behavior.

Employment lawyer Jon Hyman, for example, wrote a popular piece titled, “NLRB says a ‘f**ktard‘ is different than a ‘d*ck’ under Section 7.” While you may have never dealt with the National Labor Relations Board, you should be aware that your tax dollars being used to decide cases like this.

Whose Dirt Are You Really Digging?

When you’re trying to make hiring decisions, you may wish to Google your candidates.  I don’t generally recommend doing too much on the Google front because the Internet can be reliably unreliable. Lots and lots of people share the same name, and you cannot be 100 percent sure that the dirt you’re digging up is about the person you’re thinking of hiring.

If it floats your boat, however, go ahead.  (Just make sure you do it to everybody or nobody. Consistency saves your soul, should you ever be sued.)

If you do locate the individual you want to check on, chances are his Facebook page will not be secured. Theriault says that 81 percent of people don’t have their privacy settings configured properly. This means you can read their walls and discover not only amusing anecdotes about their children, but pictures from their bachelor parties.

You can do this, but you should think twice before you actually do it. Ask yourself instead: “Would I be hired if my manager could see my Facebook page right now?” Chances are, you have some stuff on the Internet that you wouldn’t like put into a PowerPoint presentation for the next management retreat. Most of us do.

But if you’re worried about whether this is legal, go ahead if you want. As long as you aren’t making a decision based on something protected by law (such as age, race, or pregnancy status) you’re free to dig.

Here’s the catch: Once you bring that person on board, you can’t dig any more.

Theriault advises managers not to keep looking for information on someone once that person is hired. It’s considered undue surveillance by the NLRB under the law. Don’t friend them on Facebook, and when you start having performance problems, don’t Google for an excuse to terminate. Keep your decisions based on work behavior rather than external behavior, and you’ll probably be fine.

If that statement reassures you that your own manager isn’t keeping tabs on you, remember that it doesn’t apply to your coworkers. Your manager shouldn’t friend you, but people frequently have social contact with their colleagues.

Anything you say, your coworkers can bring to the boss’s attention.  So, here’s some friendly advice for employees: Act like you are being watched. You’re probably right.

Get a Grip on Your Handles

What about the business-promotion side of social media?  Before you hire that salesperson, you need to have a clear policy about who owns the contacts she makes through work. 

I wouldn’t allow an employee, for example, to Tweet about the business under her own handle. Instead, if you want to promote your business, do it under a company-assigned handle that you clearly own. Otherwise, all your company’s “followers” will follow her right to the competitor when she quits. (And please don’t fool yourself into thinking that your employees are loyal and will never quit.)

Before you write your policy, think about your goals. If you’re a bank, you definitely want to prohibit employees from talking about your customers. But if you’re a tattoo parlor, pictures of the latest tattoos (with your clients’ permission, of course) might be just the boost your business needs.

Finally, think about your client base. If you’re catering to wealthy little old ladies (stereotype alert!), it may not matter one whit what people say about you on “The Twitter.” If your target market is 20-somethings, though, they will know what Twitter says about your business.

And that means you had better know first.