Have you ever regretted sending that last Tweet?

Someone I know was offered a really high profile job. Days later however, the content of a rather unfortunate late night Tweet resulted in the offer being withdrawn. Careless? Certainly, but costly consequences like this, whether accidental or from deliberate misuse of social media, are nothing new.

The thing is, information travels very fast on social media, but so too do problems. It’s instant nature, and the fact that anything that has been posted can be shared with others, means even supposedly private discussions can travel a long way.

For example, I dealt with a manager who posted comments about another’s behaviour in great detail on Facebook. The language used was colourful; and the behaviour described somewhat salacious.

Although the manager had used his own personal Facebook account, the post was shared by others, so it was seen by several staff members, plus a number of people from the local community. Needless to say the chief executive was not happy that an employee had used social media to attack another member of staff, in public, and cause embarrassment for the individual and the organisation.

Of course we’ve all seen typos and spelling errors on Twitter and Facebook (sometimes due to the auto-correct tool!). At worst it just looks unprofessional. But more serious misuse is a genuine problem. Take the case of the three council workers in Wales. They posted confidential information, racist material and defamatory remarks on social media; and paid for it with their jobs. Then there were the five police officers sacked for posting and commenting on pictures of the public on social media. A waterways employee was even dismissed based on something he revealed on Facebook some two years earlier.

Such behaviour can reflect badly on organisations (and individuals), leading to embarrassment, damage to reputation, loss of credibility or even financial loss. In the worst cases legal action might follow.

In the manager’s case I mentioned earlier, he didn’t think further than his own Facebook Friends. But his employer had to deal with complaints from other staff and the public about the offensive language and unpleasant allegations, to say nothing of the developing internal dispute between the employee and his target.

The fact remains that you can’t say bad things on social media any more than you can say them in public. So if you criticise your employer publicly, and they find out, chances are you will have to face the consequences whether you’ve used Twitter or announced it standing on a chair in the pub. Indeed, there is a growing folder of case law where employees have lost their jobs precisely over what they’ve said on social media.

But the good news is that many such problems are avoidable; and organisations can, with the right approach, ensure their employees remain professional and responsible when using social media. Indeed, an effective social media policy setting out expectations and guidelines for use is good practice. Alongside this should be training for staff and managers, so that they become aware of the pitfalls, understand the policy; and follow the organisation’s guidelines.

Sure, most people we work with are responsible, so is it really necessary? But as we’ve seen, even accidental misuse can be costly; and while you won’t stop misuse that is beyond your control, with a proper policy you will reduce the likelihood of problems and be better equipped to deal with them if they do occur.

This article by David Green was originally posted on Green Pepper Consulting

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