Recently, I published a post that struck a nerve with a reader who will remain anonymous. That reader lashed out at my idiocy in several ways, including via a popular social network.

The wasted effort at insulting and haranguing me would have been quickly
forgotten if not for an interesting observation: my cyberstalking
critic executed his childish attacks through multiple accounts all associated with
his employer, a small services-oriented business.

On one of those
accounts, I discovered other rude, obnoxious and downright classless ‘content‘ not directed at me.

I asked myself, “Would any self-respecting employer tolerate such online behavior? Has this person’s employer seen his digital masterpieces? What would a prospective client think of the company and its people if they discovered this?

According to one survey, 8% of companies in the United States have fired an employee for a social media flub, while another 20% have disciplined an employee for social media misbehavior.

Of course, there are a variety of legal question marks when it comes to social media and employees. But that should not distract from the social media policy: something many companies recognize they should have, but something which few do.

One of the biggest challenges: deciding what a social media policy should include. No policy is ever perfect, and when it comes to there’s a fine line to walk between being
unreasonably restrictive and overly liberal.

At a minimum, a social media policy should serve as a common sense reminder for employees about how their social media activities can impact the company that pays their bills. With that in mind, here are three things to mull over when grappling with the development of a social media policy.

Your employees reflect on you whether you like it or not

Thanks to social media, your company’s newest, lowest-paid employee may garner more online attention than its CEO.

That means one thing: every employee has the potential to either help or hurt your company’s image and reputation online. Once you recognize this, the need for a social media policy becomes clear.

Separation of work and play? Difficult, but not impossible

At the end of the day, you can’t fully control what your employees do,
and you shouldn’t try to. But many companies shy away from creating a social media policy because they believe the legal uncertainty is too great.

That’s not always the case, however. Employers typically have a lot of power. Many jurisdictions permit employers to exercise great control over what employees are permitted to do with company equipment, email accounts, and to set reasonable policies for behavior that is unacceptable.

In the United States, the First Amendment does not give employees free reign to say anything while on the job or in the context of their employment.

The key to a good social media policy is setting clear expectations about what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Are employees allowed to associate their social media accounts with the company? Can they name clients, or reveal information that a company may have a reasonable basis to claim is classified?

What disclosures will the employee be expected to make to clarify that a comment doesn’t reflect the views of the company? Is vulgar language, sexual innuendo or harassment ever acceptable behavior?

The best policy is to avoid dolts before they become employees

At the end of the day, policies are only as good as the people asked to adhere to them. If you hire people with no class, you can’t expect them to miraculously acquire it while on the job.

That’s why a social media policy shouldn’t be just serve as a set of guidelines for employees; it should be written in such a way that it can serve as a screening tool for the company. More and more companies are looking at the social media profiles of prospective hires.

Thanks to the ease with which social media ‘background checks can be completed, companies can often make sure that prospective hires are living up their social standards before they extend an offer.

Here are Econsultancy’s 10 social media guidelines