More and more organisations of every type have started to recognised what a valuable business tool social media can be in any number of areas. But it is vital that an employer imposes some form of order on employees in an area which has precious little external regulation.
Some employers, for very good reasons, may wish to limit employees' use of social media in the workplace while others will want to exploit its advantages to the full.
Whatever the approach, be it an outright ban, limited use or open access, it is essential employers protect themselves, their organisation and their employees by establishing a clear policy on use of social media in the workplace.
This may not be quite as straightforward as it first seems.
For one thing, a traditional approach, with an approved communication manager regulating access to official communication channels, can be bypassed by using social networks.
There's a view that social media requires new rules to reflect its unmoderated status, or the whole area is simply beyond regulation. The continued rise of social media in its many forms has also blurred the boundary between 'internal' and 'external'.
So for many, the emphasis is now on employee conduct rather than unenforceable prohibition.
But Institute of Employment Studies research, commissioned by Acas, highlighted difficulties some employers have faced in setting standards of behaviour for employees when using social media. The report says employers should take a 'common sense' approach to influencing how employees behave online and advises organisations to simply treat behaviour online as they would treat any other behaviour in the workplace.
Acas says employers must make a clear distinction between business and private use of social media. Where limited private use is permitted, employers should explain what this means and be clear about the limitations.
Perhaps social media expert Rose McGrory succinctly sums up the purpose and scope of a social media policy. She says "It's relatively simple to define what you shouldn't do on Twitter or Facebook – it pretty much boils down to good manners, the same professional standards you'd apply in the office, and avoiding a handful of sensitive topics."
Those who are less confident may appreciate a little more detailed guidance, she says, and many good corporate social media policies are no more than a page or so long.
employees must show responsibility, discipline and to stay within the law
Write it down.
By clearly setting out its social media policy, an organisation can significantly reduce the risks of inappropriate or unlawful activity.
Recent history is littered with examples of people who have come a cropper through using social media to express views or make remarks they wouldn't dream of saying to someone's face or in a public place. A written social media policy makes it clear what employees can say or not say about their employer, colleagues or about any aspect of its business.
The policy should help employees understand the line between the different standards that may apply in their personal lives and at work.
And, importantly, a written policy could help give employers some defence against liability for breaches of the law for any inappropriate use, particularly in areas like discrimination, data protection or even health and safety.
The policy should help an employee make the best, safe and legal use of social media. Employees should know what's acceptable and where the limits are. A clear understanding of the rules and any disciplinary action that will be taken if the rules are broken are to everyone's benefit.
To keep pace with this rapidly evolving environment, the policy must be regularly reviewed and amended where appropriate. And, of course, use social media to communicate the very latest policy update. They're more likely to be read and acknowledged by those who need to.
Social media expert Euan Semple summed it up: “Use the tools to improve the tools.”
It is essential that employees have clear guidelines about what they can disclose about the organisation. Some encourage all employees to blog and tweet, provided they promote positive – or constructive – images of the organisation. Employers must advise employees about copyright, defamation, financial disclosure and other relevant regulations.
And employees need to be clear about how far they are allowed to offer their own opinions, balanced by employers' awareness of the risks involved using everyone's voice to represent the organisation.
Put simply, employees must show responsibility, discipline and to stay within the law. Personal views and opinions have enormous power; they have the ring of truth that an official spokesman can never hope to achieve. Corporate spin rarely succeeds in social media or blogs.
By using the voice of 'ordinary' employees, an organisation has a golden opportunity to engage an audience in an authentic and trustworthy way.