Five Reasons Why Your Company Doesn’t Need a Social Media Policy

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.

Man Tied Up in Red Tape - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/track5, Image #5867991

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
    • Profanity
    • 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.

Question: Do you agree or disagree?
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  • http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/ Augie Ray

    Interesting approach, Michael. I disagree with it, but I find it interesting!

    My feeling is that Social Media is new, and while you and I may understand it deeply–the power, the risks, the nuances–most people do not. Right now, people are losing their jobs for posting and tweeting things, and companies are stumbling into problems because they haven't defined what is and isn't expected.

    If we agree that Social Media changes communication and employees' roles in important ways, then I think it stands to reason that existing company policies must change to reflect this. Perhaps in five years there will be no need for special Social Media employee policies and education, but at this particular inflection point, I think it's wise for companies to help employees understand the expectations, guidelines and rules for Social Media.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    My recent post Social Media's Impact on B2B Marketing Budgets?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Augie. I appreciate your insight. I also have tremendous respect for your company (Forrester).

      I would like to see documentation for anyone losing their job because of a blog post or social media snafu. Perhaps some exist, but I still believe that the underlying reason had nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with what was communicated. It would have likely gotten them fired in any context.

      Thanks again.

      • http://ExperienceTheBlog.com Augie Ray

        The employer would've benefited by being forced to consider the new environment. Drinking photos–bad if shared with students in the classroom but what about on Twitter and Facebook? Expletives? Comments about school security? What's in and out? Do they really want to evaluate every parent complaint one by one?

        Secondly, employees would've benefit by understanding new rules for the social media road. Should teachers follow students? In the "old days," there were rules about contact between students & teachers, but do these apply in Facebook & Twitter? Should teachers all find out for themselves what is right or wrong in Social Nets?

        I just don't think we can say "Social Media changes everything" (and it does and will) and at the same time say "But all your existing policies and procedures are fine as they are."
        My recent post Social Media is the New Super Bowl: Pepsi Refresh and What It Means to Marketers

  • http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/ Augie Ray

    Michael,

    I'm a fan of your blog (but first time posting).

    Here's an example: http://www.myfoxphoenix.com/dpp/news/national/tea

    A teacher was fired because a "a parent complained about a (vacation) picture of her holding a drink in her hand." (Other reports indicate she posted an expletive.)

    This case demonstrates the benefits of Social Media policies both to employers and employees: (See next comment–your blog wouldn't let me post this because it's too long.)
    My recent post Social Media's Impact on B2B Marketing Budgets?

    • Jim Thomason

      Chances are the school did not have a social media policy. It found its existing policies sufficient to deal with the behavior it found unacceptable. Whether or not that action was fair or legal is something I can't tell as we don't have nearly all the facts we need to know what happened. Does her teaching contract say no public consumption of alcohol? Does it say that she must be a positive role model even in her off-hours? The combination of (a) she drank and (b) that drinking was made public enough to be found by a parent is not dependent upon any technology. She could have had the same outcome had she had a beer at a baseball game and been seen by this same parent. This is the point of our lack of social media restrictions: it is the behavior and not the technology that is actionable, and the employer's work rules handle the matter without the downside of social media policy restrictions. That's our philosophy and we haven't experienced issues with it to date.

  • http://panamericanbank.blogspot.com Jesse Torres

    I agree that companies need to empower their employees and companies by opening themselves up to blogging and other social media tools.

    I am the CEO of a community bank in Los Angeles. Blogging has given me the opportunity to express the “personal” side of the business.

    Unfortunately, as a regulated enterprise, we are required to maintain formal written advertising policies as well as appropriate use policies. What I have done is expanded the appropriate use policy to include common sense language that is more of a training/primer on social media than anything else. I actually took this primer info and packaged it last December in the Community Banker’s Guide to Social Network Marketing (http://www.tinyurl.com/cbgsnm). It’s a free download. Bankers can use it to train employees and then let them loose.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Jesse Torres
    President and CEO
    Pan American Bank
    Los Angeles, CA

  • Jim Kenney

    Michael,

    great common-sense post. this is information we can use in my company.

  • Brent Blackburn

    Great post – as I'm wrangling with a policy and guidelines I can't agree more about trying to retain the 'fun' that has made social media so successful outside the workplace!

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/miller_schloss Becky Miller

    This is fantastic. I wish more companies would develop this kind of trust in their employees. I have never worked for a company that expected the best of its employees like TN does.

    I like this kind of post, and I think it is very good for TN, because reading this makes me think, "I want to work for TN!" (Even though I am not looking for a job nor do I live in Nashville…it's that appealing!)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/miller_schloss Becky Miller

    This is fantastic. I wish more companies would develop this kind of trust in their employees. I have never worked for a company that expected the best of its employees like TN does.

    I like this kind of post, and I think it is very good for TN, because reading this makes me think, "I want to work for TN!" (Even though I am not looking for a job nor do I live in Nashville…it's that appealing!)

  • http://twitter.com/LMilesW @LMilesW

    Can I come and work for you? It is extremely refreshing to hear a CEO talk like this. It reminds me of an article I read a long time ago about a company that got rid of time cards and let the managers keep tabs on whether the employees were there or not and deal with the few that were problems. Productivity went up and paperwork went down. The same goes here. Trust your employees and I believe they will respond positively. You certainly won't convince everyone especially those whose jobs rely on writing policies but maybe a few more will be won over to "the other side". Thanks again.

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  • http://blog.agencypja.com Robert Davis

    Michael – great post, and I'd say #5 is the "money" point. Social media isn't so special – as I see it, it's just an exceptionally transparent form of brand behavior, and as such, well-covered by broader behavioral guidelines such as those you have at Thomas Nelson for personal conduct. (Just as, in the future, we'll be less likely to have "social media experts" and "social media agencies" – and more likely to have integrated these public behaviors into our daily lives without such distinctions.
    My recent post This Week in Social Media

  • http://www.InsuranceGo2Guy.com Dan Weedin

    Good article Michael. Ironically, I am finishing a book proposal on this very topic. I'm a risk management consultant and I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to not only social media, but the Internet. A recent project with a major insurance company has inspired me to help corporations and small businesses to manage their risk simply and effectively, while maximizing their communications. We agree in principle on much. I do believe that the issues to need to be raised, communicated with employees, and written down. It doesn't need to be fancy, but it does need to exist.

  • http://www.beachmarketing.co.uk Steve Bishop

    Absolutely spot on with your comments! The days of draconian control of employees is long gone. It is about results delivered and not time served! Encourage and enthuse staff and they will respond. Try to control and it demotivates beyond belief. I know so many people in corporate jobs who hate the boundaries that are put up around them. Social media is cool and the technology allows tracking anyway so trust the people in your business to do the right thing and funnily enough that's usually what they end up doing!

    Your thoughts are welcomed!

    http://www.beachmarketing.co.uk

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  • http://www.pokethebeehive.com Dan Hutson

    Great post, Michael. If you replace "social media policy" with "communication policy," I think you begin to see what's wrong with the premise. I see this largely as a trust issue. You may trust your employees to do the right thing, but do you really TRUST them? And have you made the right hiring decisions that have led to an organization where trust is less of a concern? If you have a culture that truly values people for the skills, talents and personal traits they bring to the organization, and you have the right employees on board, then everyone knows what's appropriate in both communication and other behavior. Violations of the culture stick out and are easily addressed.

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  • http://www.andrewpmoore.com Andrew P Moore

    When I first was approached with a client wanting to do social media- I told them.. "Be Careful!" I told them that they needed to create a unified approach to the brand they were displaying online. Now that I consider your position- I believe a loose set of guidelines may be the best way to help clients proceed. I am curious about thoughts on a unified message? How does a company keep its brand intact?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      In a word: education. If you can’t get the message across to your own employees, what chance do you have in the marketplace? Thanks.

  • Jeff Johnson

    Agree. L O V E the Libertarian/anarchist quote.

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  • http://www.elsbethvaino.com Elsbeth Vaino

    Great points. For me the two key elements are trusting your employees but also making sure they understand the corporate guidelines and messaging in which they work. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that companies/managers/executives who feel a need for a strong social marketing policy are insecure in their leadership and in their operations. If they run their organization well and hire and continue to nurture good people, then social media presents nothing but opportunity.
    My recent post Dynamic warmup for skiing

  • http://www.drinknectar.com @nectarwine

    Totally disagree. Company I work for has and needs a phone, email, etc policy for security, marketing consistency, etc. A company without a consistent social media policy will find themselves with divergent messages that only confuse the customer.

  • Dave Giberson

    Thank you so much Mr. Hyatt! It is rare to find such a refreshing blast of sanity in my Twitter stream first thing in the morning. I am fondly reminded of a treasured mentor who advised me to "make as few rules as possible; you will have to enforce the ones you make or be held in contempt". I hope your employees realize how fortunate they are to be subject to such an enlightened view of management. Do you consult on this topic? I can think of several organiztions that would benefit! :-)

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  • http://www.chriszaugg.com Chris Zaugg

    A phenomenal post. I am the director of a small organization….100 or so. I only have 10 fingers and 10 toes, thereby disqualifying me from being the "Little Dutch Boy" plugging every conceivable gap in my organization. Instead, we have some basic HR guidelines that serve the "big" stuff, and we trust our people. And you know what…it works pretty well! Thanks for the post, Michael!
    My recent post Balloons or golf balls: An analogy for leaders

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  • http://traceysolomon.wordpress.com traceysolomon

    agree. also a huge issue is creating a restrictive social media policy after a social media catastrophe.

    I've watched it happen- it throws the baby out with the bath water.

    Accountability? Absolutely. Every employee needs to know that their "social media footprints" could be CSI investigated at any moment. If you shouldn't say it- post it do it don't.

    But, for pete's sake if someone DOES- don't steal the potential connection/ revenue/ brand awareness/ ministry our from under those who don't.

    (it's possible this is a touchy issue for me at the moment. )

  • http://twitter.com/techcommdood Bill Swallow

    Very well-said. As a leader, I too have noticed that people generally aren’t miscreants and will do the right thing. I also have found that if they know you hold that expectation (through seeing your actions), they are also more inclined to ask (usually excellent) questions about appropriateness and offer solutions to tricky situations.

    I fortunately escaped Big Corporate America before the social policies started becoming hip. Through others, I’ve seen a former employer implement one and then replace it with soft guidelines, for the very reason you offer: it crippled anyone’s ability or interest to blog.

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