Defending The Digital Workplace

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How to Increase the Likelihood Employees will Follow Your Social Media Policy

A lot has been written about social media, its impact on business, and risks for employers. See my prior posts here (Digital Security Report: Social Networking Expand Risks for Employers) and here (Another Reason for Employers to be Wary of Social Media – Unfair and Deceptive Acts). And to mitigate these risks the conventional wisdom says to put a policy in place that applies to employees’ use of social media. But it is also important to implement a policy that is actually effective and will be followed by employees.

Before discussing such a policy, a little foundational information is needed. In their book “Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath explain that any change must consider what is described as the “Rider” and the “Elephant.” This analogy is, in turn, taken from Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” which describes the emotional side of our brain as an elephant and the rational side as its rider. This analogy creates a vivid image of a person sitting atop an elephant holding the reins seemingly in control. Or at least until the elephant and rider disagree about which direction to go at which point the rider will ultimately lose the battle. (This analogy also vividly explains why despite wanting to lost 10 lbs I can’t put down these delicious cookies. Damn you elephant, Damn you!).

This is a very cursory and simplified explanation of a great book.* But with this explanation, let’s insert the Rider/Elephant into the social media policy implementation equation.

Direct the Rider: The Heath Brothers note that resistance is often due to a lack of clarity. In this regard, social media policies are simultaneously too specific and too broad. This leaves the Rider with information overload and too much ambiguity to process, which undercuts the Rider’s ability to control the elephant. This is because the Rider experiences a decision paralysis, i.e., too many choices consume the Rider’s cognitive resources making it that much easier to give into the immediate emotional needs of the elephant.

For example, a proposed social media policy was forwarded to me by an attorney (a non-client. The attorney wanted to know my thoughts – i.e., free legal advice). This policy was more of a manual, which came in at just over 14 pages. Now imagine you are  John Doe, disgruntled employee blowing off steam on Facebook about a dispute he had with Jane Doe manager. Or that you are Jane Doe manager twittering about your company’s upcoming product release. In these examples, John Doe would need to review Section III, paragraph A(1) to evaluate what his company considers to be appropriate on-line discussions of co-workers. Jane Doe, however, would need to consult with Section V, paragraph B(1) to evaluate how company information should be treated, and would probably want to consult with Section VII, which deals with marketing and communications with the public. Any bets that this policy will be followed?

So lets replace the preceding 14 + page manual with a set of rules that script the critical points your organization wants an employee to consider before publishing  something on any social media outlet. I call this the “Think Before you Publish” Social Media Policy (I know, I’m very creative):

  • Rule No. 1 – Assume anything you blog about, tweet, update on Facebook, or otherwise publish will appear on the cover of the Wall Street Journal;
  • Rule No. 2 – Assume you will have to explain to your mother, father, children, or any loved one why you published any of the preceding and what you were thinking at the time; and
  • Rule No. 3 – If your social media publication involves your employer, any of its managers, employees, products, or services, assume you will also have to explain why and what you were thinking when you made such post to any of these constituents.

These rules taken together provide a working framework for an employee to consider, where the focus is on “specific behavior,” i.e., think about what you are about to publish before making it public. These rules also do not tax the Rider’s cognitive processes by requiring the Rider to evaluate the content of a “tweet” or a Blog posting, or a Facebook update with sections from a 14 + page manual.

I fully concede that it will be important to supplement these three rules with explanations, especially when it comes to work related publications that may not seem facially inappropriate. Examples may include releasing non-public information about an upcoming product release, endorsing a produce or service without considering the Federal Trade Commissions recent expansion into this subject, or if your product or service is in a heavily regulated industry with specific issues to address. But at the very least, these three rules are intended to provide a moment to reflect before hitting that “share” button.

Motivate the Elephant: Motivating the elephant means appealing to a person’s emotional side. This is because simply speaking to the rational rider will not carry the day (I know if I want to lose weight, I need to exercise and eat fewer calories, like from cookies. Yet here I am enjoying one two cookies). Similarly, employees are often given a policy manual to read and review and a form acknowledging the employee has done both. Applying this approach to social media does little to appeal to the “Elephant.” But how do you appeal to an employee’s self-interests to obtain actual buy-in when it comes to following your social media policy?

There are innumerable examples of what happens when social media goes wrong. For example, recently a female middle school teacher was discharged after photographs of her engaged in a simulated act of fellatio with a male mannequin appeared on an internet website (Land v. L’anse Creuse Pub. Schs. Bd. of Educ.). These pictures were taken at a combined bachelor/bachelorette party. The discharge was later reversed by the Michigan Teacher Tenure Commission and affirmed by the Michigan Court of appeals. While this case had a happy ending for the teacher in that she got her job back, it came after a prolonged litigation process that was witnessed, at a minimum, by school employees, students, and parents.

Another great example occurred last year when a consultant/VP tweeted about being in Memphis: “… i’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here!'” Unfortunately for the consultant, he was in Memphis because he was presenting to a major client headquartered in Memphis (a little company called FedEx). Worse, employees at FedEx ran across the tweet. And even worse, FedEx responded. Click here for the full write-up and the response.

There is even a website called that allows one to look through posts on Facebook users’ walls, including the potentially embarrassing and  career-ending kind. In perusing through this site, I was amazed how many people have a boss who is an idiot!

Using these examples – and many, many others – to illustrate why an employee should follow the company’s social media policy appeals to the elephant, i.e., “follow these rules so you don’t end up like the last jack-ass that called me an idiot.” Again, the intention is that before an employee hits the share button, he or she will reflect on what might happen to the individual if the publication became public knowledge.


Social media is widely considered a “must’ for business organizations. That might be true. Even if it is not, however, it is a must to have a social media policy.  To increase the effectiveness of that policy keep in mind your Riders and Elephants. In other words, make the policy succinct and readily translate into expected concrete behavior. Second, when presenting the policy to your employees, don’t forget to appeal to their elephant by addressing their emotional interests, i.e., show why the policy is intended to help the individual.

Feel free to forward me any outrageous or noteworthy social media policies with a brief explanation of why the policy is either. Also, contact me with any questions about this topic.

* I don’t know the authors Chip and Dan Heath. I’ve never spoken with either individual. In fact, other than seeing their pictures on the inside of the book jacket, I couldn’t pick Chip or Dan out of a line-up. I bring this point up because Switch and their earlier book, Made to Stick, are both fantastic reads, worth picking up and this recommendation is based solely on the merit of those books and no personal connection or personal interest on my part (I’m deliberately not including a link to either book to remove any suspicion that I’m even getting compensated for referrals to the books). Although, in full disclosure, if the Heaths would like to give me a cut from the increased book sales my post is certain to generate, I’m willing to negotiate (and please read the preceding disclosure with heavy sarcasm).


Written by Jason Shinn

July 5, 2010 at 10:01 pm

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