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There's a reason cats are so popular on the Internet. Cats can be funny without opening their mouths — a fact lost on a surprising number of humans.

In the past couple of years, countless people have fallen on the wrong side of that fine line between amusing and egregious by texting, tweeting, posting and otherwise sharing the most inappropriate thoughts and opinions.

Too bad they're damaging their careers — and your brand — in the process.

Did You Really Say That?

From offensive comments about President Obama's dead grandmother to insensitive quips about AIDS in Africa, we have collectively endured what appears on the surface to be the worst of human nature. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll discover a bigger problem.

The vast majority of people online are neither depraved nor psychotic: They just want to be funny and popular, like those cats that slide down the stairs like a slinky

I'm not going to belabor the story of Justine Sacco, who made a racist tweet as she boarded an 11-hour flight to South Africa. Sacco has already paid the price for her impulsivity and carelessness: She's been publically humiliated and fired from her job as chief communications director at IAC, a media and Internet company with more than 150 brands and products.

But the story raises some universal issues that perceptive companies will at least pause to consider. How should businesses reconcile their desires to encourage employee use of social media with the reality that common sense is a very uncommon thing? In an era of instant mass communication, can businesses really expect employees to think before they tweet, pause before they post and weigh the impact of whatever they plan to say against their intrinsic desires to be clever and comedic?

Sacco described herself, in her now deleted Twitter account, as a "troublemaker" known for her "loud laugh." Months before the so-called tweet heard around the world, she publicly questioned whether she could be fired for things she tweeted while intoxicated.

Shouldn't any of this have raised multiple red flags -- along with the ghost of the robot from the 1960s TV series Lost in Space warning "Danger, danger"?

But then what? Does a business have any right to restrict or control what a person states on social media, especially if that person clearly identifies her employer in her profile?

Murky Water

You may presume that a company has the right to craft a common-sense social media policy that protects its reputation, its trade secrets and keeps its employees from shooting themselves in their respective feet. But as I mentioned earlier, common sense isn't common — and, depending on where in the world your company is based, you may not have the right to set down broad prohibitions against discussing even controversial issues like religion or politics.

In the US, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been scrutinizing and striking down employers’ social media policies for the past few years. Specifically, it has been evaluating policies to see if they violate the employee bill of rights in Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — which protects the rights of employees to discuss wages and other working conditions. And the rulings have been broader than you might expect. As Alyesha Asghar Dotson, an associate with the law firm of Spilman Thomas & Battle in Charleston, W.Va. explained in a blog post on social media policies:

The NLRB said that social media policies that could 'reasonably be construed to chill Section 7 rights,' such as discouraging communication regarding working conditions among employees or requiring permission to engage in protected, concerted activity will be deemed unlawful. A policy need not explicitly prohibit protected speech to be unlawful. A policy that has a vaguely defined impact or which contains no limiting language can also be unlawful."

What does that mean? Among other things, Dotson noted:

  • An employer prohibiting disclosure of confidential and proprietary information should be ready to narrowly define “confidential” and “proprietary.”
  • A prohibition against using the employer’s name or trademark should be narrowly tailored.
  • An employer should be wary of instructing employees regarding posting photos, videos, quotes or other content involving third parties. An outright prohibition of such postings -- even though third party rights may be at issue -- could be considered overbroad.
  • A policy that requires an employee’s posts to social media sites to be “accurate and not misleading” could be overbroad if it is not clarified or further defined by example or otherwise.

Real World Issues

Most companies want to give employees easy to understand guidelines rather than lengthy legal documents. For examples, you can take a look at the 248 social media policies in the Social Media Governance database.

Most policies focus on external posting on Facebook or Twitter by employees who are not authorized to represent the companies where they work, and may also touch on the use of internal networks like Tibbr and Yammer for work.

The Apple social media policy, for example, warns employees to be thoughtful about how they present themselves in online social networks:

The lines between public and private, and personal and professional are blurred in online social networks. If you identify yourself as an Apple employee or are known to be one, you are now connected to your co-workers, Leaders and even Apple’s customers. You should ensure that content associated with you is consistent with Apple policies."

It also suggests that Apple employees respect their audience and coworkers, and advises them to respect the privacy of both coworkers and customers. It specifically advises:

Don’t be afraid to be yourself, but do so respectfully. This includes not only the obvious (no ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc.) but also topics that may be considered offensive or inflammatory."

What to Do

According the State of Social Business 2013, a recent report from Altimeter Group, a San Mateo-based research firm, 85 percent of companies have an organizational social media policy. But only 18 percent of companies think that their employees have at least a "good" understanding of their social media usage and the organizational policy.

Maybe 2014 is the year to change that. What kinds of things should you make sure your employees understand -- or should you include in a social media policy, if you haven't adopted one already?

  • Company policies should prohibit inappropriate postings that may include discriminatory remarks, harassment and threats of violence or similar inappropriate or unlawful conduct, as well as disclosure of proprietary, privileged or confidential information regarding the company, its clients, subcontractors and vendors.
  • To be clear about "proprietary, privileged or confidential information," give examples. Depending on the company, it could include things such as sales and financial data and plans, pricing, production and operational strategies, commercial proposals, contracts, unannounced technology, legal matters and information or data posted on company intranets expressly for employees.
  • Note that very few people in the company are authorized to act as official spokespersons.
  • Unless an employee has been specifically designated, make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not for the company. Do this by using a personal email address rather than a company email address, and consider adding a disclaimer, such as "The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer."
  • Repeat the obvious: That the Internet is unforgiving, never forgets and offers little expectation of privacy. Warn employees that any social media post will be visible for a long time to come, often by more people than they originally intended and that postings can live on even after they are removed or deleted.
  • In addition, warn employees that privacy settings on social networks are not absolute -- and comments they think they are addressing to a limited number of friends or relatives can sometimes go public. Even comments you think you are making anonymously can often be traced back to you or the company. In fact, a California court recently ruled that anonymous comments a man posted online are potentially libelous and not mere opinion.
  • Let employees know they are personally responsible for the content they publish on blogs, wikis and any other form of user-generated media. Suggest they ask, before posting anything:
    1. What are the potential consequences?
    2. Do these words or images make me even slightly uncomfortable?
    3. Am I creating this post because I am angry, upset or annoyed?
    4. Am I discussing an issue or an idea or engaging in personal attacks on one or more people?
    5. Am I thinking clearly and reasonably?
  • Remind them that social media is not a footrace. It's OK to wait, review and reconsider things they planned to post. In fact, sometimes counting to 10 before they hit "send" can be the best career move they ever make.

Title image by Asa Aarons/all rights reserved.