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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The corporate code versus an individual’s freedom of speech

A clear social media policy helps sensitize employees to the acceptable norm

The ease with which social media can be accessed has revolutionized the way we communicate and the speed with which people respond to us. Today, it is rare to find an individual who is not on social media. Given this, most organizations have a social media policy, setting some parameters of online conduct that are “acceptable".

While our group prides itself on being people-centric, and upholds the principle of individual rights, we also have a strong ethic. If employees are the greatest asset and determine the future of any organization, it is no less true that often organizations pay the price for employee aberrations or unfortunate behaviour.

While disclaimers such as “the views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my organization" are now de rigueur, an employee with hugely contrarian or morally questionable views can severely compromise an organization’s brand, as we saw in the recent case involving a private sector bank employee who posted undesirable remarks on his social media page.

Rather than trying to block or discourage employees from being active on social media, brands should instead think of ways to avoid online reputation erosion, or, worse still, public shaming and litigation.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Specialist employee advocacy firms are now designing strategies to leverage employees’ positive workplace experiences to boost the company’s overall brand strength. So how can brands harness the positive sentiment of their employees on social media without being overtly affected by their misdemeanours?

In my mind, there are no ready answers to achieving that perfect balance between empowering and nurturing employee freedom and distancing the brand from an employee-triggered crisis. News spirals virally on social media, magnifying issues and turning everything from the pure to the profane into a slugfest of heightened emotions and partisanship.

A well-stated and communicated policy helps sensitize employees to the acceptable norm. It is important for employees to know the boundaries beyond which their public views surpass the virtues of liberal expression and begin to affect corporate brand reputation. Culturally, organizations where values are well-communicated are already leaning in the right direction. There are the outliers that one must be cautious of, but the effort has to be undertaken across the organization in order to achieve this.

Companies should look to establish a blog, update their website regularly and express a stand on issues of interest to the industry or community via their official social media channels. Have a robust and active company intranet to reach out and reassure employees during a crisis so that employees know the views of the organization as a whole on such matters. This is not only democratic in nature, but also engaging.

The Donald Trump government is grappling with serial crises where people within the administration are setting the social media ablaze with comments that are either critical or at cross-purposes with that of the president himself. A major part of the problem may lie with Trump himself. The world is privy to his hyperactive tryst with Twitter, and, clearly, this is finding resonance within his entire team. It is, therefore, important for CEOs to exemplify through their social media behaviour what the organization’s values are, and that can be a powerful tool in drawing the line for employees to watch.

Without the constricting robe of etiquette and peer pressure, social media is highly empowering, and its numerous faceless and nameless handles are a testament to the powerful draw of anonymity. Organizations can pay a heavy price for the radically expressive views, misguided or otherwise, of one of their own.

In days gone by, the humble barber shop was a place for all types of people to come to for a haircut. Given the diversity of people that came to the barber shop, it was inevitable that vastly divergent views would be expressed, leading to violent arguments with destructive endings. The barber then hung a board that read “no politics please" and all was well. It’s time we followed suit.

Harsh Goenka is chairman, RPG Enterprises, and tweets at @hvgoenka.

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