Chances are most of your employees are using social media. Many of them are using social media at work. Some of them are using social media from work every day. Are your employees clear on what constitutes appropriate use of the Internet during business hours? Do you have a policy in place that clearly outlines how employees can and cannot use social media?

If not, read this—because the time is now to get that social media policy in place. The integrity of your brand is at stake!

Once Online, Always Online

We’ve all heard about the social media scandals lately. You know, the ones where a politician posts an inappropriate photo, or accidentally sends a public tweet to his mistress…? Most of the time, the post or tweet is immediately removed, but alas, the Internet holds its timeless records despite all attempts to scrub it clean. As you know, these situations don’t usually end positively for the politician.

So what about social media in terms of your brand? Let’s say one disgruntled employee decides to go online to complain about having to work overtime, or the lack of egg salad sandwiches in the lunchroom, or that his fellow employees don’t recycle enough. While these might seem like relatively minor complaints, do you really want this information showing up when potential customers search for your company online? Or what if that disgruntled employee is Facebook friends with one of your biggest clients and decides it would be a brilliant idea to post about how awful they are?

Now you’ve got problems.

Prevention is Key

Can you control what your employees are saying online, especially when posting during off-work hours? Not necessarily. However, there are ways to prevent these types of problems. When it comes right down to it, the most effective way to prevent social media snafus is to notify your employees of your social media monitoring policies and be sure they’re aware of those social media policy details. This improves your chances for effective legal recourse.

As far as your employees are concerned, they should be aware that there is NO expectation of privacy when it comes to social media use on an employer’s equipment or system. So if you provided that employee with an iPhone or a laptop and they’re using social media on that company equipment in a way not in line with your social media policies—that could be grounds for termination. Again, legally speaking, the key is to inform that employee of those policies as soon as possible, preferably within their employment contract, at the time of hire.

Your Brand, Online

Now, say your company has a strong social media presence. (As you should.) This is all the more reason for a strong social media policy. All of your employees, and especially those tasked with updating your Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites, should be aware of what content is acceptable and within company online communications guidelines.

To retain your brand integrity and maintain consistent and clear branding, take the time on the front end of your marketing strategy to develop a strategic plan for your online content. This can be done quarterly, but ideally, monthly is probably best. (If you’re heavily into social media, then, by all means, meet on the subject weekly.) Set up guidelines that outline employee conduct when confronted with negative social media response. (For example, a negative comment on your company’s Facebook page.)

Here’s the trick though: Rather than constructing a bunch of “if, then” scenarios, simply outline a handful of general, blanket guidelines regarding tricky social media situations. For example, your social media policy should include some language explaining how your brand is to be perceived online. Assuming customer service is important to your business, this means all responses should be as positive as possible, so as not to incite more negativity. Outline, on a general level, the ideal ways your business and your brand should be perceived by your target market, in terms of your online presence. Use these guidelines to influence your employee behavior.

Most of all, be sure your employees are aware of the consequences, should they fail to follow your social media policy. AND, as a general rule: BE SURE a lawyer reviews your social media policy before it becomes a staple in your employee handbook. If you can’t afford legal council, contact local colleges and small business organizations—many offer very affordable legal services for startups and small companies.

Heard any crazy stories about damaged brand integrity by employee online activities? Want to learn more? Have any questions? Leave a comment below!