by Alistair Nicholas
February 14th, 2014

There’s an old saying that “you can legislate against everything except stupidity.” That saying is finding its proof in the age of social media as corporations struggle to enforce social media codes of ethics and ensure all employees live the values of employers, including outside the workplace and especially online.

In the latest social media faux pas, a wealth advisory fund has had to “part ways” with one of its high-flying Asia-based investment advisors. Porsche-driving Anton Casey is not only out of a job, but has had to flee his home base of Singapore, with his family in tow, for Australia after a Facebook post insulting the city-state’s public transport commuters went viral.

No doubt Mr Casey thought his Facebook account only inflicted his boorishness on his family and closest of friends. But sadly for him his post was not made on the highest of security settings and Singaporeans quickly began sharing screen grabs of what he had said about them.

In another recent incident, Justine Sacco, a PR executive who really should have known better, was fired from her role with media company IAC, after tweeting a racist jibe about Africans and AIDS before boarding a flight from London to South Africa. She probably thought it was safe to share her bad joke with her 500 closest friends, many of whom she probably has never met.

While she was winging her way to South Africa her tweet went viral and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended as the top issue on Twitter for the day. Netizens then trawled through her previous posts and found a history of casual racism. Interested readers can learn more about Ms Sacco’s sad odyssey from Venture Beat, The Huffington Post, and The Telegraph, to name a few of the global media outlets that covered the story.

Given that corporations cannot establish rules against stupidity amongst their employees (even the highly educated Sacco and Casey were prone to that human condition), what can corporations learn from these two tales?

Act swiftly…

The first and most important lesson for companies is to act swiftly. In both cases, Mr Casey and Ms Sacco were using their personal accounts to make personal statements. They were not discussing company policies or revealing proprietary information. Nonetheless, their employers moved swiftly to “part ways” with them. It is not clear from the corporate statements of their respective companies whether they were fired or chose to leave, but the companies made it clear they and the two employees had decided it was best to go separate ways. Most likely the two individuals realised their poor judgments had limited their career prospects with their employers and it was best to move on.

If the employee refuses to move on, the company may become involved in protracted legal action. Nonetheless, if the company has clear social media guidelines and the individual has signed up to those guidelines, dismissal should be pursued.

The second lesson is to establish your company’s position on the matter at issue. Both Mr Casey and Ms Sacco’s employers swiftly made statements to media asserting that the comments of the individuals were out of step with the values of their respective companies. They made it clear that their organisations did not tolerate racism or discrimination on any grounds and, in fact, expected all employees to respect diversity. That was critical to the companies maintaining trust with the public. If they had dragged their feet on the issue and not made clear statements they may have been seen to condone the comments or to just not care.

Going beyond the lessons of those two cases, what else should corporations do to ensure they are protected and their employees know how to behave on social media forums? Here are some tips:

1. If you have not established one yet, it is high time your organisation put in place a Social Media Code of Ethics. If you have one in place, it is a good idea to review it and update it regularly. Social media platforms are changing every day and your code of ethics for activity on these platforms needs to stay abreast of the changes.

2. Ensure your employees have read the Social Media Code of Ethics. One way to do this might be to provide an online version that requires all staff to read it while responding to questions and completing other interactive tasks as they move through it. Completion of the online document would be sufficient proof that they have read the code. In some jurisdictions a physical signature on a document may also be required – check with legal counsel in each market in which your organisation operates.

3. Require staff to undertake a training program on the company’s Social Media Code of Ethics. This could be provided as an online course or it could be provided in a classroom. Either way it is important to require all staff to undertake such a course and to retain proof that they have completed the course.

4. If it comes to your attention that a member of staff has said something inconsistent with your corporate values on a social media platform, it is important to let them know immediately and to advise them to delete their post – or face the consequences. Of course, if their indiscretion is of sufficient weight or deliberate, you may have no option but to immediately part ways.

Social media, the speed at which it is changing, and the always-on, 24/7 media cycle is certainly increasing the challenges and pressures on companies and individuals alike. While we can’t write procedures that will stop stupidity, we can establish rules and procedures that could help protect corporate reputations when individuals trade their wits for idiocy and imprudence on the internet.

Alistair Nicholas is a senior advisor, Government Relations, Public Affairs & Crisis Management, Australia, at at Weber Shandwick

This article first appeared on Public Affairs Asia

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