Before social media, people’s private life and career had a distinct boundary. But as the use of these platforms becomes more widespread, the line between personal and professional profiles is getting blurrier. While for many, this is manageable through privacy settings or separate accounts for work and play, for others, one misstep can have dramatic consequences. And this isn’t always on the side of the employee. Employer mishaps on their social profiles can cost them more than just a few followers, and could ruin their entire business. 

We all know hindsight is 20/20, but understanding the division between personal and professional social networks – and how to use both appropriately – is essential in today’s digital and socially connected world. So what can you do as a business to prevent you or your employees from tanking the entire operation? 

Understanding the Issues

  • “Friending” or “following” a coworker might seem like good networking opportunity, but asking permission in person could save the recipient from the stress of accepting. One recent study from The Interview Guys shows that about one-third of employees accepted a friend request from co-workers to “keep the peace” and 1 in 5 workers have a separate work-focused twitter account. Limiting interactions to the watercooler, and off the web may be the key to success in your business.
  • While social media is a place for creative expression and showing off one’s ‘fun side’, business accounts should stay away from being too controversial or personal in most cases. One PR firm in Texas learned this when the official Instagram storied a screenshot of an intern candidate’s picture in a bikini captioned, “…do whatever in private. But this is not doing you any favors in finding a professional job.” Posted with the intent to teach a lesson about what to share if you’re job searching, the incident completely backfired on the company. The founder was blasted online for publicly shaming a prospective employee, and has since shut down its website and social media presence.
  • Avoid canned responses when you can. Auto-replies are often painfully obvious, barely acknowledge the purpose of the consumer’s post, and clog up valuable media space with monotonous requests to email customer service teams. Taking the time to actually respond to consumer’s comments – or at the very least, checking the auto response before hitting ‘send’ – could be the difference between a #PRFail and a pleased customer.
  • If an employee makes a mistake on social media, take a minute to evaluate the situation when you’re not as hot headed. There are countless lawsuits filed under wrongful termination after firing an employee over something they posted online. Additionally, taking a step back allows you to see other opportunities to embrace what was shared. Panera recently fired an employee for posting a TikTok video of how their soup was prepared, which many viewed as a big misstep. Instead of piggybacking on their viral moment, Panera looked like the large corporate chain taking down a young hourly worker. 

Encouraging Employees 

Of course, social media isn’t all bad, and can actually be a very rewarding platform to build a community of your employees and fans online. A study done by Sprout Social in 2018 showed that “71% of social marketers see employee advocacy as a cost-effective alternative to influencer marketing.” Platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn can attract new business and potential job applicants if they see real humans enjoying their work and proud enough to share it. 

The key here is to be transparent in how to use social media in a work environment. For instance, working in PR, I spend hours a day on social media. In many other industries, this would be completely unacceptable. Each industry or even business has their own guidelines, and it’s important to be upfront with what you expect from your employees. 

A big part of this is having a clear and unambiguous social media policy in place. This can help inform employees about if and when they need to disclose their employers, and how you expect them to behave online in public – and sometimes private – spaces. We also regularly run social media trainings for our clients to help answer employee questions and teach responsible social media etiquette. 

What to do if you make a mistake? 

All of this is well and good, but mistakes happen – despite even the best preparation. So what do you do? Our best advice is always to be honest. Depending on the scale of the mistake, stepping up to the plate and admitting you messed up can go a long way in rebuilding public trust. And that goes for brands and employees. 

There is no one set of rules for all companies to follow, and while this allows for a great deal of creativity, it also leaves much to the unknown. As both audience size and the capabilities of each platform take off, it can be confusing for brands and individuals to master the delicate art of social media. The best way to combat fear and minimize mistakes is to work as a team and adhere to a reasonable social code of conduct, created with the company’s goals and culture in mind.