Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for companies to make headlines for embarrassing social media blunders — ranging from inappropriately capitalizing on national tragedies to poorly-timed messaging.

But public "fails" on official social media channels are not the only challenges organizations face in today's fast-paced world of technological innovation. As real-time social networking continues to gain traction, employees are now facing disciplinary actions for tweets, posts and photos made on personal accounts.

For example, a Georgia teacher was fired in 2009 after parents complained that personal photos of her drinking on Facebook "promoted alcohol use." In 2013, an energy company employee was terminated for a social media rant against customers calling to complain their power was out after a large storm swept through the area.

In some cases, people are rejected or have job offers revoked prior to their employment even beginning. This was the case for Connor Riley, when she tweeted publicly about weighing the benefit of a "fatty paycheck" against a bad commute and "hating the work," after receiving a job offer from Cisco — an offer that was later rescinded due to her remarks.

These types of challenges for employers will not be going away anytime soon. Between 2005 and 2013, adults ages 18 to 29 reported a significant jump in their social media networking use — from 9 percent to 49 percent.

This is why business owners — large and small — should know the answer to "Do I need a social media policy for my employees?" is always "Yes."

A thoughtful, comprehensive social media policy is a great way to not only clearly communicate expectations to employees about what is and is not acceptable, but it also ensures organizations are able to manage the image of their brand effectively. Employee messages — even when posted from personal accounts — can impact consumer perception.

But how does a company go about creating a well-crafted social media policy that protects both the employer and the employee?

Teamwork is critical

Developing a social media policy is not a job best done alone. It's best to get company stakeholders from various teams — IT, public relations and human resources — involved in the process. This is important because the use of social media never only impacts one or even just two departments. It impacts people and technology on a number of fronts.

Having the right people in the room the first time around can help avoid blunders that could have prevented with input from the right people.

Research what others are doing

Both Intel and IBM have great examples of proactive, well-organized social media policies. But every company is unique, with its own set of needs. Researching policies of similar organizations can help an employer get started with their own policy.

Social Media Governance is a great resource for this purpose, housing social media policies for B2B, B2C, nonprofits and government agencies, as well as instructional guides and templates for public use.

Create policies, not just one single policy

There are a lot of variables at play in the world of social media, which can result in an employer creating a large social media policy that is either too vague or too small in scope. Consider breaking down "one big policy" into categorized, smaller policies.

  • Facebook use policy
  • Twitter use policy
  • Personal blog policy
  • Personal social media account code of conduct
  • Employee conduct code for use of employer computers and Internet
  • Employee conduct code for online company representation
  • Conduct code for use of official brand social media channels

Breaking down a policy into manageable chunks has two major benefits. First, businesses will have an easier time identifying any gaps in their code of conduct. Second, a segmented set of clearly-titled policies will make it easier for employees to understand what conduct is acceptable. Moreover, it will be easier for them to proactively answer their own questions, as they arise, at a later date.

Have legal look it over

Before distributing a policy or set of policies to employees, having it reviewed and approved by an internal legal team or third-party legal service is critical. This is because some public social media activity that may seem reasonably inappropriate — and thus understandably prohibited — might be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

For example, Section 7 of the NLRA allows employees to discuss wages and other employment conditions, regardless of the medium of platform — even in a public forum on the Internet.

There are also constitutional issues to consider, such as free speech. Recently, the Kansas Board of Regents came under fire from employees over their social media policy, even after seeking input regarding an update of their previous policy. Many faculty members attended the unanimous vote to pass revisions wearing red stickers emblazoned with "FREE SPEECH," still concerned their constitutional rights were being infringed upon.

Having some form of proper legal representation review a policy before it goes into effect can mitigate future legal troubles down the road. This is especially true given the ever-evolving nature of social media technology. Innovation, though exciting, often breeds new hurdles in the eyes of the law. So it's best to bring in experts, as employers may or may not be aware of what those hurdles are.

Keep communication lines with employees open

When presenting new policies to employees, employers need to take a few steps to make sure communication around the policy is clear:

  • Communicate when new policies are introduced, as they shouldn't be used to surprise an employee after an offense has already been committed.
  • Outline expectations around reviewing policies, as well as deadlines for any signed documentation that may be required.
  • Announce any changes or updates to internal policies, being specific about what changes were made. Employees shouldn't be left to figure out what language has changed, especially since social media policies can be long and complex.
  • Invite questions, concerns and suggestions from employees. An open feedback loop can often mean the difference between avoiding an issue before it happens and dealing with questions after the fact.

Communication of a policy is just as important as the policy itself. A company taking the proper steps to communicate new and revised policies at each step not only increases the likelihood of compliance, but it also makes employees partners in the process.