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Communicating with ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction’
Social media tools Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are now ingrained in internal communications

By Catherine Skrzypinski  11/19/2012
 

Employees of a certain age might recall the days when Friendster and MySpace—the first wave of social networking websites—were banned in offices around the world because of their distracting nature.

In 2012, however, employee communication experts embrace Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as mechanisms for disseminating company news and messages. Communication experts say it’s no longer taboo to tweet, network with LinkedIn connections or “like” Facebook pages during office hours; social media is now “the” way to stay connected to colleagues in the next cubicle or across time zones.

“For good or bad, today’s steady stream of shortened communication—broadcast in real time to a large audience—allows employees to stay connected with a much greater ‘inner circle’ of friends and acquaintances,” wrote Ben Willis, senior director of product strategy at Saba Software Inc., in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “Tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn allow employees to stay in constant contact with much larger circles of individuals, while sites like Twitter and [corporate social media website] Yammer have popularized shorthand communication.”

“Employees are a company’s primary stakeholders, and their No. 1 ambassadors,” added Lisa Durante, senior manager of internal communications at one of the “Big Four” accounting firms in Toronto, Canada. “They can do a lot to help support and spread company messages through word-of-mouth—and more so through social media.” Failure to provide employees with the information and tools they need to start or join conversations “could prove detrimental to a company’s position,” she told SHRM Online.

Employers must remember that employees absorb internal communications in different ways—not just by reading messages, but also by watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts, added Amanda Jones, a human resources classification specialist based in Bellevue, Neb.

Nevertheless, employees have a responsibility to use Facebook and Twitter wisely at work, noted Maren Showkeir, a partner at Henning-Showkeir and Associates, a Phoenix-based business and workplace consultancy, and co-author of Authentic Conversations (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008). “They must be accountable for what they post online, and not use the tools to gossip,” she said.

Why Transparency Matters

Before the social media era, those responsible for internal communications used in-person meetings, memos, e-mail and interoffice mail to keep colleagues informed. Now, a single tweet or Facebook status update announcing a corporate change can cause an immediate ripple effect throughout a company.

“Employees today do expect to know everything that is happening in their workplace the moment it happens,” said Kate Hardman, employee communications manager at Qualcomm Inc., in San Diego. “There is a definite blurring of lines between internal and external communication, which is in large part due to social media,” she told SHRM Online.

“The lightning speed of communications can be either a blessing or a curse,” Durante added. “It all depends on what is being communicated.”

Employees expect greater transparency during times of change, especially in the past several years, Durante explained. Yet, extraordinary instances—such as natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or employee layoffs—make it more difficult to share information, Durante continued, because executives themselves are trying to grapple with the situation.

“In these times, employees can’t expect to get all the answers to their questions,” she said. “However, communication can’t stop. There needs to be acknowledgment and, if need be, reassurance of the situation.”

While Showkeir agreed that social media gives employers an opportunity for transparency, she expressed what she called “a radical point of view” about using the tools for crisis communication.

“Employees need to know everything; even bad news,” she explained. “When company leaders withhold news about harsh decisions, it’s a subliminal message to employees that they ‘can’t handle the truth.’ ”

On the other hand, if employees find out about a major company change via e-mail or on social media, they might wonder why management did not take the time to tell them the news in person, according to Halley Bock, CEO and president of Fierce Inc., a Seattle-based leadership development and training firm. “Working with employees to establish procedures for what information can be shared internally and/or externally, and when that information can be communicated, needs more attention from upper management.”

“There are always risks for allowing and promoting the use of immediate communication modes, but the benefits outweigh the consequences,” added Joe Shaheen, managing director of consulting firm Human Alliance Ltd. in Washington, D.C. “The traditional hierarchical view of the firm is going away.”

Social Networking Pros and Cons

While the nature of social media encourages everyone to engage in informal conversations, it has now made a lasting impact on professional dialogues—for better or worse.

Organizations have gained a number of advantages from the range of communication tools available for use in the workplace, such as the ability to:

  • Create a cohesive company culture, even when employees are not in the same office.
  • Construct concise messages in 140 characters or less.
  • Access colleagues instantly—particularly executives who might not be available face to face or by phone.

The immediacy of various announcements, however, can create communication-related disadvantages for organizations. For example:

  • The inability to gauge basic human responses like tone of voice, body language and eye contact.
  • Judging colleagues by typos or errors in a message.
  • Reacting immediately to written correspondence, such as constructive criticism, in an emotional rather than rational manner.

“This is a new etiquette that cannot be defined at the moment,” explained Cara Hale Alter, president of Speechskills LLC, a San Francisco-based communication training company. “When employees pull out their smartphones, they are engaging with their virtual community, but are neglecting their immediate surroundings. By typing away, they are no longer present in reality,” she told SHRM Online.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Above all, employee communicators say the most important aspect of their role with a company is to keep employees informed, in whatever format.

“I think internal communicators have to accept that they can no longer control the message as they once did,” Hardman concluded. “As the way we communicate changes, so does our role. Whether we are the source of the information, or the conduit to external sources, our charter is to make sure employees have the information they need.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Related Articles:

Leader Communication Could Be Better, SHRM Online Employee Relations, August 2012

Global Communication Brings Challenges, Opportunities, SHRM Online Employee Relations, March 2012

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