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No social media policy? Get one posthaste

Your hospital’s reputation could be at stake if a team member’s online remark goes too far, so be sure to craft clear, legally defensible guidelines.

No social media policy? Get one posthaste
Team members aren’t protected if they post about a workplace topic unrelated to employment terms.

The use of social media can be a double-edged sword, especially in the workplace. On the plus side, social media is a wonderful vehicle for marketing a veterinary practice and connecting with current or potential clients. On the darker side, what happens when an employee posts content that reflects negatively on your practice? Should you respond? If so, how? If the post is offensive, should you discipline or even fire the team member?

Because social media users tend to openly share thoughts and opinions, many experts believe that job terminations based on inappropriate posts will increase. The issue can be a challenge for a hospital’s human resources team, but finding the right approach is crucial given that a single post has the potential to blow up into a public relations disaster.

So, how do you respond to, say, a sexist post on an employee’s personal page? Although you don’t want to overreact or react emotionally in the moment, and you don’t want to micromanage, here’s the crux of the situation distilled into one sentence: How much damage could a particular post have on your hospital’s reputation?

What’s important is that you respond fairly and not give one person who, say, has a knack for humorous posts more leeway for material that another employee posts in a more serious manner. And if you choose not to respond, be aware that you’re still responding by sending the idea that you are fine with the post or you aren’t concerned with the messaging. Although a non-response is sometimes the right choice, in today’s business environment a passive approach could harm your practice.

What You Can and Cannot Do

At a minimum, you should create a policy covering employee use of social media while at work. Make clear what a team member can and cannot do, and then adhere to the policy. You have the option of banning on-the-job social media use. If, of course, someone’s job includes posting for the practice, you have to delineate what is and isn’t permissible during work hours.

You cannot ban employees from talking about work issues online when they aren’t at work, and they are legally permitted to discuss topics with one another on social media that fall within certain guidelines. For example, employees can discuss on Facebook or Twitter their dissatisfaction with the hospital’s management style or how much they’re paid. Employees are not protected and can be fired, though, when they discuss these issues online with someone outside of the practice as this no longer falls into the category of co-worker dialogue about the workplace. They also can be terminated for sharing confidential information, including, but not limited to, trade secrets.

Team members aren’t protected if they post about a workplace topic unrelated to employment terms. If someone calls a manager “lazy,” the communication might be protected. If the employee posts, though, that the manager is “fat,” the statement might expose the employee to termination. Or if the employee says, “My office is full of ugly people,” the opinion leaves the realm of employment-related discussions.

When a social media post crosses the line can be difficult to discern, so your practice might want to consult with an attorney experienced in this type of law. Note that laws can differ by state, so if your company has clinics in more than one state, a blanket social media policy might not work. Employee protection is especially strong in California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York and North Dakota. Also be aware that worker protections over social media postings apply to unionized and non-unionized employees.

You can fire employees who engage in hate speech. Sometimes a post is clearly hateful, while at other times it is borderline. Hate speech is defined as communication that has no purpose or meaning other than expressing a feeling of hatred for a particular group, perhaps focused on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or religion.

When to Create a Policy

Your policy should contain clear guidelines about what is and isn’t permitted while at work, and it should explicitly state that trade secrets and the like must remain confidential. The policy should advise employees to refrain from posting social media material that could create a hostile work environment. It also is reasonable to ask employees to preface any social media remarks about the practice with a disclaimer that the statement doesn’t represent the hospital’s point of view. Be proactive, too, and run the policy past your attorney.

As a creative solution, some companies provide social media breaks for employees throughout the day, perhaps for 15 minutes a couple of times a day. This can give everyone a chance to relax and refresh their minds. The goal isn’t to completely restrict employees from using social media but to encourage moderate and appropriate use. If you want to use this strategy, outline specifics in your social media policy.

Spread the Word

How you share the news about your social media policy can go a long way in determining how well it is received. For example, you could host a pizza lunch for employees and use the time to discuss the policy. Explain why having the policy is important in today’s times, and talk about the problems that can arise when social media is used inappropriately.

As you explain the role that social media and its messaging plays in your practice’s culture and values, don’t leave the impression that your employees can’t be trusted and that you plan to monitor every message. And sometimes by educating employees about privacy setting options in social media, you can prevent an unpleasant situation.

Share with the team examples of appropriate and acceptable posts and ones that cross the line, and be open to questions and concerns. Getting employees to buy into the policy is a big step forward.

Stay on Guard

In general, avoid monitoring a specific employee’s social media accounts to watch for inappropriate comments. If you’re aware of

a controversial post, let the employee know how you plan to investigate, and review the situation with the team member. Then do exactly that.

When you follow up with the employee, get the person’s side of the story. In some cases, the comment is so inflammatory that termination might be the only response. Other times, what the employee has to say in defense might provide the context that allows for lesser discipline.

Remember to be consistent and to follow up appropriately with everyone involved at the practice. Update your policy as needed and share it with everyone.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.