Employees Using Social Media Can Give Companies a Nasty Virus

April 2, 2009 · 9 comments


A couple weeks ago, a virus had its way with my family. Within a four-day span, all four of us were incredibly sick for 24 hours at a time and it seemed there was nothing we could do to stop the next person from getting it.

That’s because despite how careful we were – quarantining the sick one to a bedroom, dispensing large bottles of hand sanitizer, etc. – it’s impossible to be fully conscious of every single time your hand touches something else in the house. For example, we each hold the handrail when coming down the stairs by habit without even giving it a thought.

It’s not much different for companies that have employees who are active in the social media space. And, honestly, what company doesn’t have at least one employee with a Facebook page or Twitter account?

Social media is like a rabbit hole and it’s easy for employees to either not be fully conscious of all the places they touch or forget that Google can find just about anything. A rude comment on a blog post here. A disparaging Tweet about a client’s home city there. Posting unapproved client work to her online portfolio because she really liked the concept, even though the client picked a different direction.

They can seem harmless enough at the time, but each of these can have a negative impact on your business and strain client relationships. That’s why all companies should have guidelines for employees that outlines what’s acceptable in social media participation and what’s not.

This isn’t to keep them out of social media networks because these tools can bring a lot of good to your organization. But the guidelines remind employees that their online actions can have consequences for both the company and them, and it gives them guardrails to help keep them from mistakenly going off track.

Does your company have these guidelines in place? If so, do you feel they’ve been helpful in better protecting the brand? Should companies have any “say” in what employees do online with personal accounts?

*Image by Fred Armitage.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katie Smith April 2, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Great article! Thanks for writing!


2 davidmullen April 6, 2009 at 8:59 am

Thanks, Katie.


3 Heather Whaling April 6, 2009 at 9:30 am

It’s such a sticky situation. When I heard the Zappos CEO speak about their approach to social media, he was so sure that the employees internalized the culture that they didn’t need formal rules and guidelines. He believed that people would know what is appropriate to say — and what’s not. However, I’d venture to guess that most companies don’t have that kind of comfort level with their employees.

I heard someone from GM’s social media team speak at a conference and I thought their approach was logical. Basically, if you wouldn’t discuss something offline with reporters or other stakeholders, don’t discuss it online. For example, if a company’s communication policy includes not discussing products in development — then that same standard should apply in social media as well.

At Costa DeVault (where I work), we don’t have a formal policy, but there are some generally understood guidelines that people follow on and offline. 1) Remember that what you say or do is a reflection on yourself and the company. 2) For the most part, discussing client work is off limits (with some exceptions). 3) If something is not supposed to be public knowledge, don’t talk about it in social media.

I’d love to see examples of internal policies that companies believe work well if anyone has them.

Heather (@prtini)


4 PRJack April 6, 2009 at 10:49 am

Very good points David. Where things get particularly messy is when Personal and Professional sides of an individual’s lives clash. It makes me wonder far more seriously about having completely different identities (on facebook, twitter, etc) representing my Professional (public) and Personal (private) sides.


5 Daniel Johnson, Jr. April 6, 2009 at 11:11 am

Since I don’t have explicit permission from my company to talk about them in social media, I don’t. I use social media to build and enhance my personal brand, which does involve some general references to what I do for my company.

Very good advice here and in the comments.

Thank you, David.


6 Tania April 6, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Here’s intel’s social media guidelines:


7 Ryan Shell April 6, 2009 at 7:08 pm

This is a topic that makes me crazy. Sometimes I think companies define “guidelines” as, “you will be banned from social media sites… and we may even block you from 95% of the blogs on the net.”



8 davidmullen April 6, 2009 at 8:27 pm

@Tania – thanks for sharing!

@ryan – just to be clear, I wouldn’t advocate that company’s ban social media sites. What I think is important is to have some guardrails on the road to remind employees that what they say online is important and can have consequences for the company.


9 Kat June 5, 2009 at 7:07 am

I think the common sense approach is great – often people just need to be made aware of the possible implications. I have seen some interesting policies drawn up – the Us Airforce one being largely defensive but pretty well laid out: http://www.webinknow.com/2008/12/the-us-air-force-armed-with-social-media.html


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