Here are a few tips for developing effective policies that balance an employee’s right of self expression with an employer’s interest in preserving its reputation and assets.
First, check the state laws were your employees work to determine the legal limits on the types of behaviors an employer is allowed to prohibit – for example “off the clock” activities supporting political causes or union activities. It always pays to exercise due diligence and legal literacy.
Second, benchmark what other companies have done in this area. Reading someone else’s social media policy is very instructive. One publically available example is IBM’s social media policy. You can find it here.
Third, when rolling out the policy and providing training on the topic, it’s helpful to note that the employee’s online content as well as the inferences that can be drawn from the content may create an issue for the company.
Take for example, the case involving police officer Vaughan Ettienne. His MySpace page was filled with manly bravado.
“You want to run your mouth with the best of them,” he said and his MySpace page was certainly a testament to that. It was trashy locker room talk that projected the image of a champion bodybuilder. He boasted about his “devious” mood and of watching Training Day “to brush up on proper police procedure.” (Training Day you might recall was the 2001 movie with Denzel Washington starring as the ruthless and unethical Los Angeles narcotics detective.)
Unfortunately, Officer Ettienne’s chest thumping backfired and fueled the defense in the case of an ex-convict, Gary Waters, who was on parole from a burglary conviction at the time Ettienne arrested him for gun possession. At the trial Waters claimed Ettienne and his partner chased him, beat him, and then planted the gun on him. Waters’ defense pointed to Ettienne’s MySpace page as evidence of the officer’s overly aggressive nature, even though there was no evidence of police brutality in Ettienne’s record.
The jury bought it. Waters ended up being convicted of merely resisting arrest, a slap on the wrist misdemeanor, instead of a felony possession of a 9 millimeter Beretta with ammo. Read more about it here.
Unlike the Twitter example in part one of this posting where Darren Bent directly attacked the chairman of his ball club, the MySpace example illustrates how a cyber-personna what you say on social networking sites can undermine your credibility and detract from being able to do your daytime job effectively. Officer Ettienne, cyberspace personna came back to haunt him when testifying in the Waters’ case.
Juries often assume that “free speech” protects whatever employees say outside of the workplace. That assumption is right up there along side the flag, mom and apple pie. Even though that assumption is wrong, you will have a steep and expensive up hill battle convincing the jury otherwise without a social media policy in place that clearly and correctly lays out the appropriate legal standard.