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How to stop employees using social media

March 29, 2011

So my client asks: “do you have a social media policy we can use”, and I reply: “yes, but what is it you are trying to achieve with your social media policy?”

After a short silence the response is generally one of the following:

  1. I don’t know, but I think it involves the interweb” (sic); or
  2.  “to stop employees using it”; or
  3. to control employees’ use of it


The reality is that although Social Media is here to stay, and is a massive phenomenon, most people in business don’t understand it even on a basic level; of the few remaining, many of them only have a basic grasp of it; and a very small minority actually do understand it. That will of course change as “Generation Y” takes over the world (and all human interaction takes place through the medium of social media), but for the timebeing ignorance and confusion prevails.

This is not a problem that affects only small and medium sized employers. I have had conversations with organisations that employ thousands of staff, in which they have admitted that they are undecided about how to address social media issues.

So what do you want to achieve? Do you even understand social media well enough to know what you want to achieve?

Horror stories abound. There are the well known tales of employees insulting their managers on Facebook, when those managers are Facebook friends; Celebrities retweeting racist jokes (by accident?); inappropriate use of hashtags, and numerous other examples of slip ups that damage brand image.

Most clients come to me and ask for a social media policy shortly after something has gone terribly wrong: Maybe an employee has created and published an insulting and demeaning video on YouTube, depicting their line manager in an offensive manner and damaging the employer’s brand (yes that did happen); maybe a manager has blogged about how awful the organisation is, and told people not to apply for work there, whilst at the same time ridiculing the senior executives by comparing them to Muppets (yes that also happened); or maybe an employee’s LinkedIn profile says that they are performing the job of someone that has just been made redundant, which is then used against the employer as evidence of unfair dismissal (and yes, that happened as well).

The most common reaction is for an employer to want to control or prevent use of social media by employees, but when you scratch the surface you find out that they also understand that social media is important to their brand both now and in the future (even though they are often not sure how, or why that is). Indeed, some businesses’ whole business plan is based upon the utilisation of social media.

In reality, employers need to accept that they cannot control social media. It is a living and breathing animal and none of us know where it will go next. Any attempt to control social media will be one step behind… Herding cats anyone? If China and Iran have both tried and failed to control social media, how can we as employers hope to succeed?

Government statistics in Sept 2010 indicated that in 2009 40% men and 48% women had set up own social networking profile. Roughly double the numbers from 2007. 25% of 8–12 year olds already had a social networking profile.

Even if you could control it at work (which is difficult given the proliferation of smartphones), you cannot control what goes on in an employee’s private life.

This then presents a dilemma. If we can’t control it, what should we do?

My firm went through this process, and as an employer I asked myself the same questions that I have been posing throughout this post. A group of us, including our IT Director, Head of HR, a technology lawyer and another specialist employment lawyer all got our heads together.

The context was that the firm as a whole was not yet ready to attach its brand to a social media campaign, and it was not within our gift to change that. So we decided upon a route that empowers our employees to use social media in a personal capacity, whilst at the same time educating and supporting them in respect of their use of social media. That naturally included a written policy with FAQs and guidelines, but it goes further than that. Crucially it includes a mechanism by which employees can seek advice and guidance (without fear of embarrassment) from those of us who worked on the policy.

The point about educating employees is vital. If you educate your employees (rather than restrict them), then they really have no excuse when they mess things up. They should have known better, and this is further strengthened by the support mechanism. This enables employers to take more decisive and drastic action when things go wrong.

Without education and support, people will make mistakes when they start to mess around with social media tools that they don’t fully understand. Perhaps they didn’t fully read that post they retweeted; or maybe they messed up their privacy settings. In these circumstances it can be hard to justify coming down hard on employees.

Now, it is important to understand that our style of social media policy will not suit everyone, but the first step must always be to understand your own position and to agree an HR strategy for social media (not the same as a social media marketing strategy, but is likely to be influenced by it).

Your approach to implementing a social media policy should however always involve the following steps:

  1. Ensure that you have someone in your organisation (if not yourself) who understands social media;
  2. Ensure that you understand what social media means to your business. Identify the opportunities that you want to exploit, and the risks that you want to protect against;
  3. Identify about five key objectives that you want to achieve, and then take them to your HR/legal advisers so that they can help you produce and implement a social media policy that is fit for purpose (for your business);
  4. Remember that one size does not fit all. Don’t copy someone else’s social media policy (unless it aligns with your specific business needs and objectives).


What are your experiences? Have you grappled with the concept of social media policies, and what did you do?

[Please ignore the adds below. Nothing to do with me.]


  1. Thanks – interesting (top 36) article, providing some detail as to what you might consider in an SM policy. Not sure I agree with it all, and it is clearly focussed on government agencies, but it certainly provides a helpful checklist of things to think about once you get past the first stage of strategising.

  2. Tom permalink

    I use a program called cronos by softwarex4. It allows me to set time periods when facebook is permitted on the internet and therefore the staff are happier that they can use it, althrough not at a huge cost to the company. For instance, i allow facebook to be used between 12 and 1 as that is the lunch break for the staff. This way if they chose to stay in the office, they can use the company PC’s and internet to go on their social networking sites. This keeps the staff happy and keeps the company from paying a lot in wages to staff that arent working. if anyone is interested…

    • Thanks Tom – That seems like a sensible thing to put in place, and I know of many other organisations who do the same thing. We should say that there are plenty of other software/systems providers that can do something similar. The most important thing is that your employees know what the rules are, and what is expected from them.

  3. It’s really a nice and useful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this useful information with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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  1. Top 36 Items to include in Government Social Media policies « idisaster 2.0

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