Social Media Policies in the Workplace: Balancing Free Speech and Employer Interests

Employee feedback about your business is a vital tool. Knowing what your workers are saying about your business helps you to make relevant improvements and changes. Yet, in some circumstances, employees expressing their opinions and experiences about your company can have a damaging effect.

In particular, social media posts can reach far and wide, influencing market engagement with your brand. Many companies are now implementing strict social media policies for workers, issuing consequences if employees create negative posts both inside and outside their working hours. While this may discourage public criticism, it can also give the appearance that businesses are trying to restrict employees’ freedom of speech.

It is, therefore, vital to get a better understanding of the risks and considerations, empowering you to create balanced social media policies.



Understanding Worker Free Speech

There are a few things to consider when it comes to disciplining workers who express negative opinions about the business on social media. Technically speaking, labor laws allow workers on at-will contracts to be fired for almost any reason, or no reason at all. A caveat here, though, is that this disciplinary action can’t contravene state or federal free speech laws. It’s worth noting, though, that rights afforded by the First Amendment only protect government employees from being fired for personal expression, not those working in the private sector.

There are a certain amount of protections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Specifically, workers are safeguarded from retaliation when they express dissatisfaction with a view to improving workplace and employment conditions. This is limited to posts outside of work and as part of collective action. A single employee tweeting about conditions is unlikely to be covered by this.

So, particularly in at-will states and companies that provide no contractual free speech safeguards, employers have quite a lot of latitude to respond as they like to social media indiscretions. That’s a huge amount of power to wield. As a result, it’s ethically vital when creating social media policies for your workplace not just to consider whether you’re acting to the letter of free-speech law, but also in the spirit of it. Just because you’re legally able to fire workers for posts, doesn’t mean you should. Your policies must be a reflection of the values and culture you want to promote internally and externally, including relating to employees’ freedom of expression.

Avoiding Reputational Damage

Much of the discussion around social media policy and company responses to it is focused on reputation. Certainly, one of the considerations is whether the comments an employee makes about the brand unfairly make the company seem more negative than it genuinely is. In cases where the criticisms are warranted, it can feel as though heading to social media first rather than addressing them with leaders puts an unnecessary blemish on the company’s profile.

The other point of consideration is how the company’s response to social media posts have the potential to cause more reputational damage than the employees’ comments. After all, disciplinary actions related to social posting are likely to be shared on these platforms, too. This can lead to your company having to commit time to damage control.

A good example of this relates to former Yelp Eat24 employee, Talia Jane, who posted an open letter on social publishing platform Medium about the company’s low pay. The company responded by immediately firing Jane for breach of company terms of conduct. There was a backlash, involving Jane posting the story on her social channels, leading to a Yelp CEO needing to post several responses on social platforms, presenting the company’s side of the situation.

Avoiding this requires your business to build its social policies with informed data of the reputational outcomes. Managing reputational risk effectively begins with understanding it. You need to analyze your current reputation and assess what issues could genuinely influence customer trust or opinion, particularly if posted on social media. From here you can better design policies that address reputational risk issues before they occur, minimizing the potential for them to appear on social platforms at all. It also enables you to prepare the most appropriate responses and customer communications should employees breach social media policies.

Collaborating with and Training Employees

Social media isn’t likely to be going anywhere any time soon. It’s a key method of communication in our society. Implementing a harsh protocol in which you threaten employees with retaliation for social media posts isn’t conducive to positive relationships and retention. Rather, it can be better for everyone involved if you seek to collaborate with workers on social media policies.

Wherever possible, hold an all-hands meeting on the subject, inviting workers of all levels and departments to join a discussion. This is a great opportunity for leaders to outline what their concerns are surrounding social media use and how certain types of posts can impact the business and everyone working for it. It also gives workers a chance to express their own thoughts on social media use. From here, you can design mutually beneficial policies, safeguarding the brand’s reputation and helping employees feel empowered.

Additionally, it’s important to ensure you communicate policies to employees from the outset to avoid misunderstandings and missteps. Incorporating this alongside some best practices for onboarding is an effective approach. Training programs help workers feel more confident in their roles, so including education on appropriate social media use gives them a practical understanding of behavioral standards. Making new workers feel welcomed by introductions not just with managers but colleagues is also useful. This should involve colleagues discussing the values of the company, including how the social media policies are designed to safeguard reputation alongside respecting workers’ free speech.

Conclusion

Building balanced social media policies that minimize reputational damage while safeguarding workers’ interests. It’s not easy, but taking steps such as performing reputational risk assessments and collaborating with workers on building policies can be effective. Remember, too, that the social media landscape is constantly changing. You’ll need to regularly review practices — alongside worker online habits — to keep policies and how you implement them effectively.

Featured Photo by cottonbro studio

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