Ban Social Media from the Workplace?
I recently read an article in a business magazine that blew me away. It outlined a case in which an employee of a trade association and lobbying organization made unflattering and unprofessional comments about her boss and employer on her Facebook page, and was subsequently fired for doing so. It concluded with this recommendation:
“Every single employer on the face of the planet ought to prohibit their employees from: 1) accessing social networking sites while at work or from a company computer; 2) publishing any comments or statements about the company, including identifying themselves as company employees, absent advance written consent, which should be conditioned upon employee permission to monitor online profiles. This should be an express, written workplace policy, signed by all employees, as well as a term of all independent contractor agreements.” – http://www.smartceo.com, September issue, “See Jane Play: Is an employee’s online image trashing yours?” (I don’t see an online version yet)
Wow. I hardly know where to start. But I’m going to try.
1. Social Media Has No Place in the Workplace. Or does it? Neilsen recently showed that more people are using social media than email (The Nielsen Company, March 9, 2009. Social networks & blogs now 4th most popular online activity, ahead of personal email). And corporations are taking notice. Forrester Research projects that companies will spend $3.1 billion on social media by 2014. Why? Because this new genre of communication allows for interactive conversations with customers, users, donors, policymakers and supporters. It engages in new ways, with immediate outcomes. It can launch a major viral campaign in minutes that would have taken months or years (and plenty of dollars) to succeed through traditional media or behind-the-scenes lobbying. That is, if you know how to use it. Which you won’t if you ban it from your workplace. Instead, you will have fewer tools than your competitors do for managing your brand and your message. As an executive, your job is to be what CEO and marketing guru Yuri Radziesvksy of GlobalWorks Group LLC calls “the lead brand custodian.” Whether you love it or not, leadership means embracing new technologies, and guiding your team to leverage them fully to achieve stated goals. Rather than banning these new tools, consider a role in which you embrace innovation.
2. Employees Will Bad-Mouth You Through Social Media. Yes, they will. Just as they have at the water cooler, on the golf course, in their living rooms…you get the idea. Unhappy employees will always vent. And occasionally even the happy employees will slip-up and post something you both wish could now be deleted. But the new landscape of social media won’t disappear just because you ban it. (One of the things I always surprise clients with is a summary of the number of mentions they get on other people’s blogs, etc.–and the posters aren’t employees.) Instead, create a policy for social media use. Better yet, get your stakeholders–board members, employees, donors, etc.–to weigh in. Take stock again in 3-6 months. Of course, there are brave and highly successful companies like Zappos who have purposely avoided having an official policy (and hey, they just got bought by Amazon so they must be doing something right!). Says Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who’s got 300 of his customer service reps using Twitter, “People don’t relate to companies, they relate to people.” (For inspiration, read Tony’s always enlightening blog.)
3. Social Media Isn’t for Serious Professionals. The article described the employer organization as a trade organization that lobbies on behalf of its “high-powered members.” It refers to employees who use social media as those who “play on these Web sites” and “the lad who updates your profile.” No serious social media users here, right? I’m going to guess that there’s some discomfort with the democratizing effect of social media–that it puts the voice of a junior employee on equal footing with that of the CEO. Well, um, yes. Exactly. And ditto with members of the general public. Who can either be your friends or your foes if you happen to be, say, a trade organization that lobbies on issues before Congress. Case in point: I have a client who is considered one of the most powerful advocacy voices in Washington and guess what? They have a Facebook page! They have employees who, yes, are paid to “play” on this site and promote their organization’s perspective and encourage members to engage on their issues, especially when they have an important advocacy event or vote coming up in Congress. My guess is that the “influential members” the author describes may not be well-versed in social media. Like any foreign language, it requires time and assistance to learn. The association could do a great service for its members by hosting a webinar or teleconference on how to incorporate social media into a strategic communications strategy, how to effectively engage social networks for political advocacy, how to build a network of influentials, and new tools for measuring ROI. As George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research, says on his blog for CEO’s “Social marketing is here to stay. It’s time for you to understand it.”
4. Monitor Employee and Contractor Use of Social Media. Yes, definitely. If you are opening an office in Communist China. And if you have all the time in the world. But if you’re here and don’t, then this kind of policy means you will lose out on some of the most well-networked and effective people and companies you can employ. And I don’t just mean the current digital-native generation. I include those of us boomers who have learned our way around the social mediasphere and use it not just to promote our own work but to monitor the work of thought leaders in our fields and develop networks of highly qualified people on whom we can count for advice and referrals. (Did you know women over 55 are the fastest growing groups on Facebook? And that Pew research has found the media age of a LinkedIn user is 40?). You need these folks to propel your mission and brand in the 21st century.
5. Ban Employees From Mentioning Where They Work. One of the most useful parts of the fastest-growing social media network, LinkedIn, is its virtual rolodex aspect. Obviously this won’t work for you and your contacts don’t know each other’s places of employment. Part of what makes LinkedIn work is the credibility of its members. Once you have a solid base of contacts, you can reach out to their contacts for advice, when filling positions, etc. As a board member, for example, I was recently able to find highly valued contractors for a bid we were issuing by querying my Linked In contacts and some of their contacts for their recommendations. Why would you want to exclude yourself from this resource? And why would you be so concerned about your own vendors and employees bad-mouthing you that you would ban them from naming their employer, and thereby preventing you from connecting your brand with their prestige (in other words, employees aren’t always jerks–most of the time they reflect well on you). This policy might speak to internal issues around employee engagement and team-building? Without a real inside look at the organization, I can’t tell, but it’s worth considering.
So for my money, I wouldn’t recommend items 1-5 above. But hey, I’m self-employed so we already know my boss is hell to work for!