Most companies' social media policies, if they exist at all, are highly inadequate, outdated or both.
What I am talking about are policies that lay out for employees the potential consequences they could face at work from things that they post on their personal and private social-media accounts. A lot of people are probably taken aback by that idea. They might understand why a policy would limit what employees say on behalf of the company, but personal opinions, posted on the employee's own time, that have nothing to do with the employer? That just seems as if it should be off-limits for corporate rule-makers.
In the real world, though, that's the way it has to be.
The reason why is that even an employee of a household-name corporation who never in a million years would consider himself to be a representative of that corporation will become inextricably linked to it if ever he posts something on social media that gains notoriety. Say that an altogether anonymous fellow in Seattle makes a racially insensitive comment on Twitter that causes a stir. When headlines start getting written about him, they are probably going to ID him, not as a father of two or a churchgoing volunteer, but as a Boeing security guard, an Amazon executive or a McDonald's cook. That isn't fair, but it's reality.
So policies have to warn employees that they could face dismissal if they do something that brings opprobrium upon the corporate identity. And those policies have to warn employees that it's up to them to make sure that the comments they make on social media are free of ambiguity and vagueness. Because if there has ever been a medium that is a magnet for misunderstood, vague quips, it's social media.
An example of what I'm talking about cropped up last week, in the wake of the horrific Charleston church murder spree. A Texas firefighter (and, yes, he was routinely referred to as a Texas firefighter, even though neither his comment nor his self-identification had anything to do with fighting fires) made a comment on a newspaper's Facebook account in a thread on the domestic terror attack: "He needs to be praised for the good deed he has done." His governmental employer fired him, having interpreted "he" as referring to the murderer. Not so, countered the firefighter, who said his comment was a response to another comment. "When I was looking at the threads and, you know, I was just reading down and there was a person there that posted, was donating a large sum of money to the victims," the firefighter said, "so I just said This person ought to be praised for his good deed.'"
I have no idea which version is true, but from the perspective of a social-media policy, it doesn't matter. When employees make vague comments on highly charged topics, the chance for this to blow up is huge. I'm as enthusiastic a supporter of the First Amendment as anyone, but employers need to be able to distance themselves from what their employees say -- even if "distancing themselves" means firing them.
And so, if you're commenting about another comment, you need to make that clear: " Robert36762 needs to be praised for the good deed he has done." Pronouns can't help but be vague. Trust me: If there's a way for social media to twist words into the worst possible interpretation, that is what shall happen.
Your policy should also note that the topic doesn't have to be controversial to be dangerous. Let's say that an employee updates her status by saying, "The lines at Miami International Airport sure are long today." Seems perfectly innocuous, doesn't it? But if she is in Miami because her company has sent her to visit a potential acquisition target, those 10 words could pack a lot of information that her employer doesn't want bandied about. Competitors could be reading her posts.
And you don't even have to write anything to give away more information than you should, if you are in the habit of doing social-media check-ins. ("Jane Doe at Miami International Airport.") Photos can do much the same thing, either because the image clearly imparts information about where you are, or because the photo carries metatag data. And while you're at it, your policy should warn employees that sites that claim that pictures will disappear in minutes or seconds after sending them don't always live up to that promise.
Despite all those risks, you can't forbid employees from using social media. You can only offer guidelines. Ask them to avoid discussing sensitive subjects. Make them think about how they might be revealing more than they should. And when they do engage in social-media discussions, make sure they understand the importance of writing comments that are explicit and specific. If someone's going to go down in a media fight, let it at least be for something he really meant to say.
Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.