This article was submitted by a coastal vacation rental manager who requested anonymity in order to be able to openly discuss an event that occurred at her company in August.
“Need to find a new job that doesn’t require me to listen to people who complain that 75 degrees is hot. Shut the frick up, get in bed with no clothes on. I honestly don’t give a rats ass about any guests anymore. Not after 8pm.”
When I read the words on the screen of my smartphone, I didn’t understand what I was looking at, and I certainly didn’t understand what it had to do with me.
The Facebook post had been forwarded to me by a business colleague. Like the dozens of texts I receive every day, I opened and scanned it quickly, searching for a piece of information or a bit of news, and I was poised to move on.
My friend had written, “I thought you’d want to know.”
Know what? I was puzzled.
I studied the picture next to the words and realized that I was staring at the face of one of my employees. I was looking at a post from her personal Facebook page.
I quickly logged on to Facebook and found her profile page. Our company name and her job title were listed next to her name and picture.
Over the next few days, as I contemplated what to do, I felt angry, shocked, hurt, and vulnerable. I never dreamed that one of our employees would have posted a comment such as this. Most surprising, this employee consistently rated highest on guest reviews, and she had advanced quickly over her three years with our company.
I admit there were days when I wanted to ignore the post and pretend I had never read it. Then I’d reach for my phone and read it again. Each time I read it, I did more research and came closer to a decision.
First, I studied our company’s employee handbook. The social media policy had been written several years earlier and it was broad, but fortunately, it covered the situation:
No employee or relative of an employee may maintain a website, social media site, blog or podcast on any computer, whether COMPANY’S or otherwise, which mentions, comments on, or relates in any manner to the employee’s work at COMPANY or COMPANY itself without obtaining prior approval from COMPANY Management for the website, social media site, blog or podcast. Any Employee who fails to comply with these requirements is subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.
Our Code of Conduct contained another relevant provision:
The following are examples of behavior and conduct that COMPANY considers inappropriate and which can lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination:
1. Failure to cooperate, assist, and promote teamwork among coworkers, vendors, clients, homeowners, and/or guests.
I discussed the situation with our Human Resources consultant and weighed my options: disciplinary action or termination.
At the same time, I combed the Internet for stories about employees who had violated company social media policies. I found numerous examples: the elementary school teacher who posted a selfie smoking a joint; the waitress who complained about the tipping habits of specific customers; the sales manager who attacked a political activist with violent, racist tweets; and the travel agent who posted homophobic remarks.
In each case, identities and workplaces were traced and exposed. Employers became embroiled in the negative publicity. All the employees were fired.
I also thought about the costs of exposure, including:
- Guests would question our commitment to them.
- Homeowners would lose faith in our company.
- Undoubtedly, our reputation would suffer.
The harsh consequences of negative social media had already hit close to home. In early June, a major local attraction was the target of a false post about health and safety. The post went viral in three hours with more than 152,000 views. It consumed the time and resources of the business, its parent company, the local medical center, and our tourism officials. The rumors sparked by that one post continue to this day. The attraction’s business plummeted and never recovered.
In mid-June, a diabetic man went wade fishing in the bay. He had an open wound on his leg that was exposed to a naturally occurring, always-present bacteria, Vibrio Vulnificus. The bacteria flourished while he waited four days before seeking treatment, and doctors had to amputate his leg. Relatives called a news station and posted their story online. The headline on July 2: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Causes Leg Amputation. Hotel and vacation rental cancellations skyrocketed, and our area had the slowest holiday weekend in memory. We still get questions about water quality to this day.
Contemplating these events, I realized that I would never trust this employee again. She was unfit to be taking care of guests and homeowners; she was a threat to our reputation in the community; and she was a drag on the morale of other employees. The bottom line was that her post threatened the livelihoods of dozens of employees, hundreds of homeowners, and our numerous vendors.
I hadn’t fired anyone in many years; that task had long ago fallen to our managers, who hired, fired, and supervised employees. But in this case, the offense was deeply personal. This employee’s actions had extended far beyond expressing her frustrations online.
The termination meeting was brief. She acknowledged the post with a shrug. I asked her to delete the post, her job title, and company affiliation, and she did it all in front of me.
I reviewed the company policies that had been violated, and she was indifferent. I knew then that termination was the right decision.
A week later, I was even more certain of my decision when I read her unemployment application:
FIRED. The company said that I broke company policy with a social media post, but I couldn’t find anything in my handbook. I was just writing what I felt about my job that night.
Writing Your Social Media Policy
- CHECK: Check your social media policy, and update it if necessary. (I have updated mine, listing more specifics so there is less chance for confusion or misunderstandings.)
- CREATE: If you don’t have a social media policy, create one.
- COMPARE AND RESEARCH: Discuss your needs with business colleagues, HR professionals, and labor lawyers. There are plenty of good examples online.
- BE SPECIFIC: Whom and what should your policy cover? Homeowners? Guests? Employees? Their families? Vendors? Competitors? The company reputation and its services? Company strategy and confidential information? Illegal activities? Incitement to violence? Harassment? Discriminatory remarks about race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and so on? Obscenities? Are employees allowed to list company affiliation on social media sites? Which ones? (We allow LinkedIn only.) Will your policy provide a “take-down” provision? If your vacation rental company is also a real estate company, consider the Code of Ethics and state and federal laws.
- THE BASIC CONCEPT: A social media policy is about risk management and setting clear policy. It should simply outline easy-to-understand common sense rules for employees.
- WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Employers must take disciplinary action when they learn about posts containing language attacking people for their race, sexual orientation, gender, or religion, according to employment attorneys. If the employee isn’t disciplined or fired, employers run the risk of being sued under federal and state antidiscrimination laws for allowing a hostile environment to exist in their companies.
- TAKE CARE: When creating your policy, be careful not to venture into Labor Review Board regulations that allow employees to discuss workplace conditions.
- REVIEW AGAIN AND AGAIN: Every January, review employee handbooks with all employees and, specifically, discuss social media policies. It’s important that employees fully understand the policy.
- SIGN AND DATE: At every annual review, employees should acknowledge in writing that they have received, reviewed, and understand their employee handbooks.
Discussing Your Social Media Policy
- DON’T DELAY: Don’t wait for something to happen. Be proactive and meet with your employees as soon as possible.
- BRANDING VS. ONLINE JOURNALING: Don’t underestimate the power and importance of these discussions. Many people are used to sharing much of their personal life online, and companies are spending significant resources on online branding and image. There is plenty of room for conflict. (At our meetings, employees relayed their own experiences with social media conflicts—at previous workplaces, their kids’ schools, their churches, within their families, etc.)
- A REAL THREAT: Explain that negative social media posts are a direct and very real threat to the company and to everyone whose livelihood is connected to it. Use examples.
- ZERO TOLERANCE: Let everyone know that offensive/negative posts will not be tolerated.
- SOCIAL MEDIA LITERACY: Individual exposure to social media platforms varies widely. Stress that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, LinkedIn, personal websites, and blogs, as well as Yelp and Google reviews, must be managed and used with care. Your employees can help fill in the gaps and drive the discussion.
- PRIVACY: Explain that there is no privacy on the Internet. Identities are easily traced via names, nicknames, e-mail addresses, relatives’ names, photo tags, face recognition software, phone numbers, reverse phone number searches, workplace identifiers, simple Google searches, organization and club memberships, and through the social media accounts of friends, coworkers, and relatives, to name a few.
- PERMANENCY: Talk about the fact that once something is posted, it stays, and it attracts comments and attention. Screen shots ensure that a post lives on long after it has been deleted.
- EMPLOYEE RESPONSIBILITY: Tell employees that to comment on an offensive post is to condone it, and ask them to report violations they see. Stress confidentiality.
- NEW EMPLOYEES: Discuss your social media policy in orientation. Don’t assume that new employees will read and understand the policy.
- CONSISTENCY: Year-round communication and consistent enforcement of the social media policies will avoid claims that employees were unaware of the policies.
- VIOLATIONS: If the policy is violated, take action as quickly as possible.
- CONSULT: If there is a violation, your HR professional or company lawyer will guide and advise you about the right steps, the correct words to use, and which actions to take, all of which will protect your company.