Even though I spent Halloween in my apartment watching Hocus Pocus with my children and had precisely two trick-or-treaters that were pre-arranged, I saw hundreds of costumed children in my Facebook feed.
You no longer have to do things in-person to know what goes on in your friends’ lives. The same is true in the workplace. In 1997 it would have taken a great deal of effort to show the HR manager an inappropriate Halloween costume picture. You would have had to be at the same party as your inappropriately dressed coworker, take a photo on film, get the film developed and bring it to the office.
At this point, the HR manager wouldn’t care because it was 1997, and no one cared. And unless it made the nightly news (it didn’t), it wouldn’t reflect on the company at all.
Today, that inappropriate costume can come straight through the HR manager’s social media feed. And even if she has wisely not followed any of the company’s employees, all it takes is 3 seconds for the employee’s rival to take a screenshot and email it to her.
And, unlike 1997, it’s possible for that employee’s inappropriate costume to end up trending on Twitter and for Twitter-sleuths to find out where your employee works and to have your social media bombarded with demands that you fire the perpetrator.
Suddenly, a one-night lapse in judgment at a non-work function can affect someone’s job, and who has to deal with it? We employee relations and HR pros do.
Managing employees in the age of social media is not comfortable. What used to be opinions shared around the dinner table are now shouted into the void--and sometimes the void speaks back. Here are some ideas to help you figure out what to do.
Have a solid, legal, social media policy.
While you wouldn’t consider having an illegal policy, the law changes more often than you might think. The National Labor Relations Board consists of five members who serve five-year terms. The president appoints them and the Senate confirms. With the election still up in the air as of this writing, what happens to the NLRB is also up in the air. If Trump wins another term, you’ll see the NLRB become more pro-business. This likely means that businesses will be able to have more restrictive social media policies. If Biden wins the presidency, you’ll see the NLRB shift to become more employee-friendly. This will likely result in more protections for employees’ social media.
You should check your social media policy at least once a year to ensure you comply with any new guidelines. You don’t want to be caught out of date by relying on an old policy.
There’s no right way to do a social media policy, but there are plenty of wrong ways. If you impose too many restrictions, you’ll violate the NLRA. If you impose too few, you could have your entry-level employees acting as company spokespersons. You don’t want either option.
Watch your own social media.
Regardless of your company’s social media policy or your disclaimer that “opinions are my own and not those of [company name], your employees will take the word of the HR person as official company policy. They just will. So, be careful about what you say--far more than what the rest of the company says.
But don’t watch your employees’ social media.
HR should stay off employees’ social media. Trust me. If an employee posts something that will embarrass the company, you’ll get three screenshots in your inbox within 30 minutes of them posting it. If someone says they are out on FMLA and go water skiing instead, you’ll get pictures of that. You do not need to go out searching for information about your employees. It will magically come to you.
And if it doesn’t magically come? Then it’s not making a big enough splash to worry about.
Let your employees have their views. Don’t punish them for things that don’t affect their jobs.
When you do find things out, then what?
This is the challenging part. When someone sends you a picture of an employee drinking beer on the weekend, you can just ignore it. Assuming the employee is over 21, drinking isn’t illegal, and as long as the employee isn’t drunk at work, you couldn’t possibly care less.
But, what if the picture is of the employee doing drugs? If you have a drug-free workplace policy or fall under the Department of Transportation rules, you need to take this very seriously. If your employee is in a safety sensitive position, according to employment attorney Jon Hyman, you’d be negligent to ignore it. But, if it’s marijuana, not a safety sensitive position, and you live in a state where marijuana is legal? Let it go.
If the employee posts something racist, you will want to investigate to see if they exhibit any of these behaviors at work. It can get pretty sticky pretty fast. It sure was easier when people only did and said stupid things where family and friends could see.
Remember, HR is a PR department
I know, there is a public relations department, and you’re not in it. But, so much of HR represents the company. Recruiters? Representing the company. How you treat candidates makes huge difference in how people view the company.
When an employee relations manager supports a manager’s desire to terminate someone, plan on that person going to social media. You’ll land in the court of Instagram a lot faster than the EEOC can react.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t make hard decisions--of course you should. Just be aware of what might happen and be prepared to deal with it. Consider notifying the real PR department when something controversial happens so they can make a plan, should it become an issue.
Certainly, managing in the age of social media is harder, and it’s not going to get any easier. And we didn’t even talk about TikTok.
How are you managing social media in the new age of employee relations? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org -- and if you’d like a way to document and track all your employee relations incidents, visit www.hracuity.com/demo.
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She's sure not evil. She's super nice! Learn more about her at www.evilhrlady.org and email her directly for decidedly unevil advice.