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:

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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.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich