By Stephen Davies, Independent consultant

Does your company have a formal policy for employee use of social media during the work day or after? Chances are most of you won’t, according to a recent report by an employment services firm which found that only 11 percent of companies in the EMEA region have put an official social media policy in place.

This number is shockingly low, even compared with the rest of the world where the same report found that only 29 and 25 percent of companies respectively in both the Americas and Asia-Pacific have an active social media policy. The average worldwide number is 20 percent.

In an age where social media is grabbing the attention of business, not just as a communications tool but as an actual liability, it is surprising that so few companies have officially made their staff aware of the potential pitfalls that come with it.

Over the last few years, as sites like Facebook and Twitter have grown in to social media behemoths, the press has simmered with scaremongering articles detailing how these sites cause lost productivity, jeopardise security and have negative effects on a company’s reputation.

And while a high proportion of these articles are often written by journalists who neither use nor understand social media and who fail to recognise the benefits of employees engaging in it, the negativity is not entirely without reason.

As far back as 2005, company staff were landing in trouble for things they said on the Internet. Take the employee who worked for book retailer, Waterstones, who became the first blogger to be sacked for what he wrote on his blog, which he occasionally used as a platform to vent frustration at his job and mock his “sandal wearing” manager whom he nicknamed “Evil Boss”. Or the young girl who updated Facebook with a tirade of abuse against her job and her boss, but forgot that her boss was a Facebook ”friend” who read her update and fired her in the comments.

Perhaps the most documented example of where employees have brought a company in to disrepute was the Domino’s Pizza scandal in the US. In April last year, two employees filmed themselves violating various health code standards. Part of the video shows one of them putting cheese up his nose and spreading nasal mucus on pizza bases.

Later claiming they were playing a “prank”, the culprits posted the video on YouTube where it went viral in a matter of days with over a million views. Arrests followed, as did a raft of negative media coverage and commentary from customers.

Now, let’s not speculate on whether an active social media policy would have stopped these incidents from taking place. But if employees are made aware of the implications of using social media with an official document detailing what they can and cannot do — not only in the workplace but outside of it too — then companies will be far safer from embarrassment, and worse.

Seven Steps to introducing a social media policy

1. Identify the purpose of your social media policy

2. Work with the HR department to ensure that it is part of the HR process

3. Agree the format. Text, video, animation?

4. Focus not just on what employees can’t do but what they can do

5. Remind employees that everything they do and say on the web will be around forever, at least in theory

6. Bear in mind that a policy of this kind transcends work time, so word it accordingly

7. Include a lexicon to avoid confusion around buzz words

Stephen Davies is independent online PR and social media [i]consultant - stedavies.com