Gini Dietrich

Social Media Policy: When Are Your Own Opinions Not Okay?

By: Gini Dietrich | September 24, 2013 | 
100

Social Media Policy: When Are Your Own Opinions Not Okay?

By Gini Dietrich

A couple of years ago, I watched a young woman tweet about how much she hated her job and her boss. Part of me wanted to message her to tell her to take that stuff off the public timeline. Clearly she didn’t know what she was doing. And then I saw her boss tweet to her, “No worries. You’re fired.”

I’d venture to guess she learned a pretty valuable lesson. But she’s not the only person in the world who takes to complaining online. Just open your Facebook news stream and you’ll probably see at least one or two of your friends who hate their jobs or their colleagues or something else that isn’t appropriate to put online.

The law is very vague. If an employee posts things on his or her personal pages, on their own time, and from their own computers, it’s not a fire-able offense. After all, we can’t change what people say in their own homes. The difference is, now we can see what they’re saying — and so can the rest of the world.

Is the Brogrammer Culture Okay?

So where is the line drawn?

Pax Dickinson, former chief technology officer at fast-growing online media outlet Business Insider, tested the line when people began bringing attention to his anti-feminist, misogynist, anti-women in tech, and racist tweets. Here’s one of the tamer ones:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 5.55.32 AM

Dickinson is a prolific tweeter, and he’s been tweeting stuff like this for quite some time, starting as early as 2010, and most definitely during work hours. It’s hard to argue he used his own time or his own computer to send tweets like these or that he didn’t violate a social media policy.

His on-the-clock social media activity has touched off a storm of stories exploring the “brogrammer” culture, what it means for women and minorities in tech, political correctness (or lack thereof), and so on.

But no business owner or manager can afford to overlook this little-covered aspect of the story: What your employees say and do on social media reflects on you and your brand, like it or not. And it’s time to start paying closer attention.

To Fire or Not to Fire…That is the Question

So…what happens when social media updates like these come from a person who is in charge of hiring and firing, coaching and mentoring, and leading a team? A person who is clearly sexist and racist — based solely on what he’s saying online — and could very potentially cause the company a lawsuit?

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV.

Most people who are active on social media have “opinions stated here are my own and not reflective of the company” in their bios, which is required as part of the company’s social media policy. But should that protect those people from saying things that could be used in a court of law?

Business Insider fired Dickinson a couple of weeks ago, stating only:

A Business Insider executive has made some comments on Twitter that do not reflect our values and have no place at our company. The executive has left the company, effective immediately. The Business Insider team is composed of more than 100 talented men and women of many backgrounds, and we highly value this diversity.

Since Dickinson was fired, he’s defended himself by saying his updates were “satire.” Unfortunately for him, not many others see it that way, including his former employer.

I learned some of my most valuable communication skills growing up. My dad always told us never to put anything in writing we wouldn’t want to be used against us later. I’ve carried that with me into the business world and into consulting with clients on communication.

Create a Social Media Policy

As business owners, it’s hard to determine what can and can’t be said online by our employees. It’s also difficult to pay attention to what every single employee says and does online.

Your best bet is to have a social media policy. Clearly state what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. (For instance, we don’t allow swearing.) Be very specific about what constitutes racism, sexism or harassment so people know what could get them fired. Get your HR, legal and communications people involved in creating the policy. And then, once the policy has been communicated to your team, make sure you review it once a month to determine whether something needs to be added.

The best line to include in your policy? Don’t ever put something online you wouldn’t want your boss, your grandma, your kids, or your customers to see.

A version of this first appeared as an OpEd in Crain’s Chicago Business.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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100 responses to “Social Media Policy: When Are Your Own Opinions Not Okay?”

  1. This is really tough Ms Gini. So many people with ‘big name’ jobs state ‘Tweets are my own’. With the ability to create an alternative persona on any network why would anyone be a hater under an account with their own name? 
    Taking away what Pax did. What about free speech? Wouldn’t an employee of Walmart maybe get fired if they tweeted ‘I love Obama’ or was pro-choice and retweeting Planned Parenthood content. My concern is stifling discussion on a communication platform.
    It is also a reason I joke about Social Scoring. Because none of these monitoring tools really knows who goes home and beats their dog or kids. Or who is shoplifting or stealing from their employer. Or who is cheating on their partner. We really aren’t ‘who we really are’ on social media. Except of course if you are really dumb and you are! Like Pax.

  2. This is really tough Ms Gini. So many people with ‘big name’ jobs
    state ‘Tweets are my own’. With the ability to create an alternative
    persona on any network why would anyone be a hater under an account with
    their own name? 
    Taking away what Pax did. What about free
    speech? Wouldn’t an employee of Walmart maybe get fired if they tweeted
    ‘I love Obama’ or was pro-choice and retweeting Planned Parenthood
    content. My concern is stifling discussion on a communication platform.
    It
    is also a reason I joke about Social Scoring. Because none of these
    monitoring tools really knows who goes home and beats their dog or kids.
    Or who is shoplifting or stealing from their employer. Or who is
    cheating on their partner. We really aren’t ‘who we really are’ on
    social media. Except of course if you are really dumb and you are! Like
    Pax.

  3. Testing. Tried to comment and it didn’t post.

  4. bdorman264 says:

    Words are like a bullet, once you fire them you can’t take them back. I’m always amused at the inappropriate ‘reply to all’ and then they try to take the e-mail back. 
    Fortunately, Lanier Upshaw encourages ‘social’ activity but we are still trying to fine tune our social media policy and procedures. Probably a good office procedure not to be vague on, huh?
    Common sense goes a long way, but some seem to be in short supply.

    • ginidietrich says:

      bdorman264 The policy is ever-evolving, unfortunately. And the law is vague about it. I guess you have to spell out common sense in the policy.

      • biggreenpen says:

        ginidietrich bdorman264 I wrote a long (very) comment and I am having trouble posting it (which may be karma’s way of saying “WAIT!!” but the extremely abbreviated version is …… remember that some organization’s don’t have social media policies at all. We have one at my employer but it was written to appease a funding source (government stuff) that we have it …. it has not (to my knowledge) seen the light of day. A policy that sits on a literal or digital shelf is almost worse than not having one at all.

        • bdorman264 says:

          biggreenpen ginidietrich Most office policies seem to collect dust until after an incident occurs…..

        • bdorman264 biggreenpen ginidietrich Does Phil Scott test you for common sense before allowing anyone to get a drivers license or a buy liquor?

        • biggreenpen says:

          bdorman264 biggreenpen ginidietrich True. I don’t know what our organization’s sm policy says (having not seen the light of day among staff) but my personal experience of being “disciplined” for a social media thing (in the absence of a policy, at a time when I was my family’s sole breadwinner) was extremely (personally) sobering.

    • bdorman264 yes  I am truly surprised how rare common sense is these days.

  5. There is nothing ok with the brogrammer culture. Nothing.

  6. Lara Wellman says:

    I wrote a couple of courses this summer and this was one of the topics.  People don’t REALLY think things through.  
    I think a lot of companies like having the disclaimer there but ultimately, how could that possibly make it ok to say whatever you want to say?  What you say impacts your reputation and your reputation impacts your organization’s reputation.

  7. Your dad’s advice is the best part of this. Lara Wellman and I have conversations all the time via text, FB chat, Twitter DM and other ways. We’ve both pulled back on topics or conversations that we didn’t want preserved electronically – even via text. The potential for screenshots just really can’t be overstated – from any medium. 
    I also have a part-time job that I pretty much barely acknowledge online – I definitely don’t say who I work for. My boss knows this and trusts me not to say anything that could damage his or our organization’s reputation. It’s a discussion we’ve had many times as we watch others in similar positions do things on social media that make both of us uncomfortable. I care too much about my reputation to damage it saying foolish things online.

    • ginidietrich says:

      Karen_C_Wilson I guess the difference is that you would never even think racist tweets were okay. Heck, it’s highly unlikely you even think racist things. This guy seems to think the stuff he was tweeting was cool.

  8. flt3 says:

    I guess his parents’ hope for his name (Pax) didn’t pan out. If you are going to do something like that, at LEAST stand by your beliefs and don’t claim “satire” when you get busted. Moron.

  9. DebraCaplick says:

    I am constantly amazed at what otherwise generally nice people will put online. It’s like the computer screen is a drug, wiping out inhibitions, manners and common sense. There’s an old rule about writing angry complaint letters that still applies today: Write the letter (or comment), put it away and walk away for a day (or an hour). Then come back and read it again, and decide if you still want to send it.
    I have rather strong beliefs that I post online. I have other strong beliefs that I don’t. It’s the electronic equivalent of saying something nasty at the irresponsible driver that nearly causes a crash by doing something stupid. You’re in the emotion of the moment, but you don’t want to say it to his face – not really. You’re just relieving the pressure valve.

  10. ClayMorgan says:

    The company I work for very recently issued its revised/new social media policy. The thing is, it boils down to common sense stuff and therein lies the problem. It is sometimes lacking in social media.
    The other thing is there are different standards for different people. 
    My reporters are public. They are out there and people follow them on Twitter. They are a very public representation of the paper. However, when I say something, people assume I’m speaking for the paper, because of my position.
    Position may influence how much of a reflection our online life is, but how we present ourselves in person and online is a reflection. It is a reflection on our families. It is a reflection on our faith. It is a reflection on our employer. It is a reflection on our own character.
    Everyone would do well to remember that.

    • ryanruud says:

      ClayMorgan It really does boil down to a lot of common sense items Clay. I was enlisted to help a local news station draft their first social media policy and educate the news room on the policy and social media use. At times I felt like I was being a bit condescending with the simpleness in which much of the policy and the coaching was delivered. But at the end of the day remembering who and what you represent beyond yourself is critical. In that situation, the policy also had a lot of legal ins and outs because of what was sourced from social media and what was posted by reporters.

    • ginidietrich says:

      ClayMorgan So how would you feel if one of your reporters tweeted some of the things this Dickinson did?

  11. briantudor says:

    I love the new trend of people saying ridiculous or offensive things and then when they get called out on it they go with the “it was satire” defense. As someone who suddenly has access to a pretty large group of digital natives (i.e. current college students) I’m constant amazed at what they think is appropriate to share online. Personally I don’t post anything I wouldn’t say out loud to a stranger, too many people use their name and face on a Twitter account and treat it like their own inner monologue. 
    ClayMorgan makes an excellent point about position and how it influences the perception online of how you speak or don’t speak for the brand or company with whom you are involved.

  12. I’ll “pick” on our community here for a moment. When you have a group of people that hang out together you develop relationships and inside jokes that are often innocuous but when heard by others outside the community they don’t always translate that way.
    Sometimes we forget that the community isn’t the only group of people reading what we write.

  13. Clay Morgan says:

    The expression of our opinions reflect on a lot more than our employers. They are a reflection on our families, our faith, our friends, and our own character. Folks need to remember this when engaging in social media.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Clay Morgan AND when people use the social networks to complain about their current employer, don’t think future employers don’t see that. I’ve turned away several people for job interviews because of what they say online about their employers.

  14. Sexism, racism, etc, always wrong. SHOULD go without saying, but obviously it needs saying.
    On the other hand, I get bored by people who sanitize and scrub their social media personalities to the extent where they seem to have no edge or point of view. And I admire those who throw the caution to the wind and dip into controversial topics, like politics, understanding that it may alienate part of their audience.
    Finally, kudos to Business Insider for this: “The Business Insider team is composed of more than 100 talented men and women …” They understand that “composed” is the right word and don’t try to sound smart by (incorrectly) using “comprised.”

  15. susancellura says:

    I can’t resist asking this question ginidietrich – If Arment Dietrich employees work from home on their own computers, then how do you differentiate the two?  😉
    All kidding aside,  I wish it were as easy as telling people to use common sense, but I think there are many in the world who have lost that particular ability. I monitor both my personal and company Twitter accounts via Hootsuite, and I am very careful about what is tweeted on the company account (I wrote the policy and the guidelines). I’m much more carefree on my own feed, but am trying to create a personality for the company feed. 
    Just like in interviews, there are topics that should not be brought up. The catch is that because we have so fully embraced the freedom of speech (it’s no longer reserved for journalists), every topic is open for discussion. 
    I think you have to take a look in the mirror and remember it’s your reputation. Then expand that to recognize that you are an ambassador for your company. 
    To repeat others’ comments, it should go without saying, but than again, restaurants, etc., have to post signs about how hot the coffee is when it’s purchased.

  16. So I had the best comment. I posted first. And livefyre decided to crap out.
    There is more to this than business. Many people with big time jobs say ‘Tweets are my own’. It is easy to identify the really bad like Pax (why wasn’t he tossed earlier?). But what about people who have their own accounts and like civil political discussion. Can Walmart fire an employee who is seen supporting a law to raise the minimum wage? Or someone is Pro-Choice or Gay Marriage and works for Chick-Fil-A? 
    There is a freedom of speech thing and we all work with people who we might not know the real person. I don’t believe people are the ‘real’ them on Social media. We all filter. Which is why social influence tools are a gamble. How many people say ‘what a cute puppy photo’ yet beat their dog at home? Good luck Iam’s!
    I think the Huff Post just decided to make commentors use their real name. And that is the kicker. We all can take on an alias on any platform and then talk freely. I sometimes get aggro over the marketing BS on my twitter handle but that is work. I try hard to keep politics out unless it is seen as a logical discussion. I have a secret account I talk politics on. 
    So the real issue while I can support freedom of speech and views….if you are smart and deserve to have a high profile job….get a freaking alias so you can say what you want!

  17. dave_link says:

    Having put together a couple of social media policies before, I’ve found that providing examples of acceptable versus unacceptable commentary works best. Granted, you can’t possibly cover all types of posts, but in giving examples of actual tweets/posts with names redacted I think employees get a better idea of what you and the company will tolerate. Sadly, using phrasing related to “use common sense” isn’t all that effective as common sense isn’t seemingly all that common anymore. 🙂

    • ginidietrich says:

      dave_link This is great advice, Dave! There are PLENTY of examples of what not to do online and using those in your policy is a really good way of showing what is acceptable and what is not. I like it!

  18. LB Johnson says:

    BI’s first mistake was putting a grown-up adolescent in a C-level position. A real professional knows better than to act like Twitter is his own private locker room…using company accounts, at that.

  19. complysocially says:

    The times, they are a changing. Some attorney’s say a policy actually creates more liability, because the more an employer tells employees that they can and can’t say, the more responsibility they accept for their behavior. Policy is fine, but it’s not enough, because no one ever actually reads it. More often than not, it’s handed off with a stack of papers when the person’s on-boarded. It gets stuffed in a drawer. And you can’t comply with a policy you don’t read.  What;s more important is digital literacy, which is what you’re writing about here.  People need to be educated in the social media compliance.

    • ginidietrich says:

      complysocially So how would you suggest business leaders protect an organization from people who tweet racist things?

      • complysocially says:

        ginidietrich complysocially

        If you make discriminatory or sexually harassing remarks about the people you work with, both you and your employer could be liable for discrimination. If the person harassed can show it was intentional, you and your employer could also be liable for punitive damages. The more control the employer exercises over how the employee use social media, the more likely they’d be liable as well.
        But illegal harassment includes making derogatory remarks or gestures, telling offensive jokes and creating an environment that would make a reasonable person’s job intolerable. This is what’s considered a hostile work environment. So business leaders should protect their organizations from people that say racists things by terminating their employment.
        The point is policy doesn’t protect the employer. It actually makes them more liable.

        • JoeCardillo says:

          complysocially ginidietrich Most policies are CYA. Meaning that HR and/or executive team has defined the boundaries of acceptable behavior but that’s about it. Very few address the actual steps leading up to fireable behavior, or if they do there’s not an honest, actionable plan to address it.

  20. sherrickmark says:

    common sense dictates that you keep your mouth shut in a public forum
    when you don’t have anything nice to say. Obviously that’s a pretty
    broad generalization, but its the truth. ESPECIALLY if you’re using
    company property to make these statements, and double especially if
    you’re using a company named account.

    • ginidietrich says:

      sherrickmark I totally agree. I also think the rule about not talking about politics and religion in public has gone out the window. It kind of makes me nuts.

      • JoeCardillo says:

        ginidietrich sherrickmark Same here. What also frustrates me, is that people that get into flamewars think they are actually changing the conversation, when they are usually just exposing polarities, and often rudely, at that.

        • sherrickmark says:

          JoeCardillo ginidietrich sherrickmark Precisely. I am reasonably sure there has never been a flame war that ended with someone legitimately saying “you know what, I was wrong, you’re right, I have now changed my view.” 

          Talking about certain things in public is fine, Gini…but keep it at a personal level. If your twitter handle is either fully or in part something corporate, keep that stuff away from it. As odd as it sounds to type this, corporate twitter is at best, still a broadcast medium. There can be conversation, of course, but business only. there’s no need for the official verizon twitter account to have a political opinion, or for the official ford twitter account to discuss religion. The people who run those accounts may very well have thoughts on both subjects, but they should damn well make sure they’re signed into their personal account when expressing them. But, they’re still rightfully held in the court of public opinion. Like it or not, cause too much of a ruckus with your personal broadcast mediums, it will affect your professional broadcast mediums. These days that’s just how it is.

      • photo chris says:

        ginidietrich sherrickmark ohhhh, yesssssss! In the pull-your-hair-out kind of way. I ask you, HOW is it productive, in the course of a work day, at a work place  in a non-religious/non-political place of employment, to discuss such things? In the middle of an office?

  21. rdopping says:

    Social media policy or not no one can stop anyone from sharing their views online. Duh. The best social media policy for me is exactly what you ended with. If you are not willing to defend your position then don’t share it.
    I do wonder when I write my personal blog if I post something contrary to the business policies of the company where I work whether they would see it as a reason to let me go? I do say who I work for in my about page so it’s not a stretch.
    There aren’t any policies against opinion as long as they are not damaging.
    Interesting to think about.

    • ginidietrich says:

      rdopping I think there is a big difference between having an opinion about something and tweeting racist and misogynist things. When you hurt the reputation of the company for which you work, that’s when it becomes a fireable offense.
      I read your blog. You don’t write anything that hurts the reputation of your employer. There is a big difference.

  22. SpinSucks says:

    TopShelfCopy Thanks Laura!

  23. 3HatsComm says:

    If sense were truly common, we wouldn’t be here. 
    But then as others pointed out, whether behind a screen name or not, some people use social to vent, to bash and so much worse. It’s when they put it out there, put a firm’s reputation on the line (as you quoted) and threaten their business, that’s a whole other ball game. So along w/ a living, evolving social media policy, that should be coupled with some ongoing SM training and as suggested, practical real world examples. 
    That typed.. two issues that trip me up here: 1) I’m not for hate. I don’t go for the venom and vitriol we see, such brute force attacks; more often than not, I let it go, I hold my mud. Because I know the risks and perils, I self-censor probably more than I’d like (or tweet rant under a handle cc Howie Goldfarb ). But.. always a ‘but’.. 2) I’m not for this faux sanitized web either. One bad tweet to ruin it all?! Gimme a break. Know that wasn’t the case here but I recoil at the notion of perfection, of trying to please and appease all the people all the time. 
    IDK There’s a part of me that’s not sure we should be so quick to judge others for anything, everything they ever say or think or share. (ducks flying bags of poo). So what if I haven’t watched Mad Men or don’t care for such and such trend? Why should I have to defend that, just b/c someone didn’t like a tweet, b/c I liked a NSFW picture on FB? I mean, some of my opinions are pretty strong – and could be (mis) interpreted as sexist or racist or anything else that offends – but they are mine. I maintain my right to think them and if I feel so strongly, put them out there for the world to see (and yes, run away in horror if they choose). FWIW.

    • ginidietrich says:

      3HatsComm I think there is a big, big difference between having an opinion and a leader who hires and fires employees (including women) firing off racist, misogynist, anti-women tweets for three years. The tweet I used in the blog post is tame compared to what he’s said throughout the years. It’s bad stuff and this guy was leading the technology team at one of the fastest growing publications out there.
      As a business owner, there have been two times we have interviewed someone and then, before going to the next stage, we checked out their social media profiles. Because they both openly and publicly complained about their current employers constantly, we decided not to advance them in the interview process.
      It’s okay to have opinions. It’s okay not to watch TV (I don’t, either). It’s okay to post NSFW photos on Facebook. But when you hurt the reputation of your employer, it’s not okay.

      • photo chris says:

        ginidietrich 3HatsComm all right, so I know, given that I am personally found nowhere in social media with the exception of a nearly abandoned FB page, that I am a total feminist, that I live for a color-blind world, that it is surprising that I even HAVE an opinion on this.
         But truly, I’d have a real problem being told by an employer what I could and could NOT say on my own FB site.  It kind of makes me say, “ick.”  
        Obviously if I am in charge of social media FOR the company, then company-based tweets and posts should support the brand. This is why it’s a JOB and not hanging out with friends.
        But say I work for a Catholic something (church, charity, organization) am I not allowed to voice my pro-choice belief on my FB page? Should I not acknowledge my gay friends who were married over the weekend? Should I show less of my private self in public because my EMPLOYER won’t like it?
        And what if it were one of Dirkinson’s employees who was on FB, telling their friends how they felt threatened by their racist boss? Wrong?

  24. dbvickery says:

    Wish folks would use the last line in this blog post more often!

  25. belllindsay says:

    “If an employee posts things on his or her personal pages, on their own time, and from their own computers, it’s not a fire-able offense.” Ahhhh, but it IS – at least here in Canada – as I pointed out in this piece from last October. Scary stuff. http://spinsucks.com/social-media/1984-redux-the-social-media-thought-police/

    • ginidietrich says:

      belllindsay The law is very vague here. They say it’s not…unless you are specific about what is okay an what is not in your social media policy.

      • belllindsay says:

        ginidietrich I was SO annoyed by what happened to that guy. Was he a LOSER who said something TERRIBLE? Sure. But there was NO mention of his work, it wasn’t during work time, it was on his personal account, and some crazy lady *tracked* him down and ratted him out to his boss! Wrong wrong wrong in my opinion.

  26. CahillLexi says:

    asauertieg It amazes me that there are adults dumb enough to bash their companies online. I knew to avoid this by the time I was 12 yrs old

  27. […] Social Media Policy: When Are Your Own Opinions Not Okay? – by Gini Dietrich […]

  28. missuniversedb says:

    TweetSmarter
    Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. ~~
    Plato
    http://t.co/AkM01mAccg

  29. mediahqnews says:

    Steveology ginidietrich Such a fine line. you still want your twitter account to sound human but not get into trouble

  30. RajKharmih says:

    When I first started reading this article, I felt like someone must have ratted Pax out and how he must’ve felt victimized. But on the other hand, when I think of the company as a person with a tangible reputation(read goodwill), I don’t see why it has no right to choose who it employs. A company is made of up people and will grow or NOT, depending on the values it espouses and how well it’s people follow those same values. Discipline, Culture, Diversity and above all, Respect are common values for most if not all companies. If an employee has a problem, they need to bring it up with the right people. Mudslinging has never helped.

    • ginidietrich says:

      RajKharmih I don’t know how he was found out…from what I understand, it was a group of people who brought it to the attention of the executives at Business Insider. Though, it wasn’t like he was tweeting with strong security measures in place. It was all public.

  31. Gini Dietrich says:

    A grown-up adolescent. I love that!

  32. […] there is an issue about doing business online (employees making racist remarks on their personal social networks, disclosure and transparency, fake reviews, etc.), I call […]

  33. […] Social Media Policy: When Are Your Own Opinions Not Okay? […]

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