When I started blogging, Thomas Nelson was a public company. Our stock was traded on the New York Stock Exchange (Symbol: TNM). When I announced to the lawyers what I was going to do, they got very nervous. They were afraid I might say something that would get us in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. When I told them that I also wanted to encourage our employees to blog, they about had a heart attack.
As a compromise, I agreed to let them write a set of “Corporate Blogging Guidelines.” When I got the first draft back, it read like a legal brief. It was full of legal mumbo-jumbo, including words and phrases you never use in real life, like “heretofore” and “aforementioned.” Worse, it was full of overt threats if the bloggers violated the guidelines.
I sat down with them and said, “Guys, I think you have missed the point. I want to encourage employees to blog not discourage them. This is going to scare them to death! Now give me something written in English and strip out all the threats.”
A few days later they came back with another draft. It was better, but still had too much legalese. I finally gave up on them and wrote it myself. I then got them to bless it—albeit grudgingly.
Amazingly, in the six years since that time, we have never had a single problem with one of our employees blogging about something inappropriate. I don’t think this had anything to do with the guidelines. I believe we would have had the exact same result without the guidelines.
However, we now find the experts (i.e., social media consultants and lawyers) saying, “Businesses Need to Formalize Their Social Media Policies.” According to one study,
Only 1 in 7 companies have formalized a process for adopting and deploying these tools, however. Only 1 in 5 of the interviewed companies have created internal policies that govern the use of these tools by their employees. As the researchers noted, quite a few companies struggle with finding the right balance between ‘the social and personal nature of these tools while maintaining some amount of corporate oversight.’”
So what? I say, “hogwash.” This is a solution in search of a problem.
Your company doesn’t need a social media policy and here are five reasons why:
- Your people can be trusted. In my experience as a leader, people pretty much do what you expect. If you expect them to be honest and trustworthy, they will be honest and trustworthy. No, I am not hopelessly naive: I know some people misbehave. But why punish the many because of the few? Deal with the exceptions as they occur. Most people will do the right thing if given the chance.
- Social media are just one more way to communicate. I honestly don’t understand all the fuss about social media. It’s just one more way to communicate. Do you have a “phone policy”? an “email policy”? a “fax policy”? Technology is neither good nor bad. It’s what people do with it that is the issue. And honestly, I don’t care if people are updating their Facebook status “on company time.” (Is there really such a thing any more?) Instead, I prefer to focus on the results the employee delivers and let them manage their time.
- More rules only make your company more bureaucratic. Before the election, someone asked me what my political affiliation was. I laughed and said, “I’m a Libertarian, but only because I don’t have the guts to be an anarchist.” I don’t think you can legislate morality. (That’s not to say that legislation can’t be immoral, but I digress.) You can’t come up with enough rules to guarantee that people will do the right thing. Too many rules only make your organization slower and less likely to embrace the change it needs to survive.
- Formal policies only discourage people from participating. In my opinion, you want to encourage your people to engage in social media. Doing so puts a human face on your brand. It meets customers where they are congregating. It makes everyone an ambassador for your organization. But formal policies discourage this. They make people hesitant. No employee wants to get in trouble, so they just avoid the very thing you want (or should want) to encourage.
- You probably already have policies that govern inappropriate behavior. This is the real kicker. You likely already have an employee handbook in place that speaks to what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. At Thomas Nelson, for example, our handbook provides various examples of “Personal Conduct Violations.” We specifically forbid:
- Insensitivity to customers
- Spreading false statements about other employees or the company
- Abusive language about a supervisor or co-worker
- Unauthorized release of confidential information
- Disruptive or inappropriate behavior
- Discriminating or harassing behavior towards a co-worker
- Indecent or immoral behavior
You can commit any of these violations in whatever media you choose: in person, over the phone, via email, and yes, via social media. Why do we need one more policy to regulate this particular technology? The short answer is, “we don’t.”
If you really must have a policy, then I suggest this one:
Use whatever social media you want. Feel free to use it on company time. Just use common sense and remember that if you publicly identify yourself with the company’s brand then act in a manner consistent with that brand. It’s in all of our best interests to do so.