Twittering and Facebooking While They Work

Set clear guidelines about the use of social media in the workplace.

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Dec 1, 2009
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December CoverMatt Blalock knew something wasn’t right. Over a few months’ time, he’d watched the productivity of a talented staff member at his small web-based retail business decline markedly. But he wasn’t sure why, until a little reconnaissance revealed the reason: The employee was spending as much as 85 percent of the workday on social networking and media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and AIM Express.

Not surprisingly, that person no longer works for Blalock. But as owner and president of the company, Blalock wanted to prevent similar situations from developing. With advice from senior staffers, he created a social media acceptable-use policy and introduced it at an all-employee meeting. "We haven’t had a problem since," says Blalock, who has 13 employees.

Many employers are leery of social media use in the workplace because they fear abuse similar to what Blalock experienced. Other concerns include information technology security and loss of corporate message control.

But the trend has gotten too big to ignore. According to Mashable.com, a social media and Web 2.0 news blog, Twitter now reaches more than 13 million people in the United States, while Facebook has more than 60 million unique visitors per month. Use of social media started as fringe alternative behavior, says Jonathan Pyle, vice president of consulting services at ThinkHR Corp., an HR consultancy based in Pleasanton, Calif. "Now it’s part of business and life."

It’s clear that social media isn’t going away anytime soon. To avoid problems, employers need to set clear boundaries that depend on the corporate culture, the work environment and the industry, among other things. But the limit-setting options are the same: technology, policy and training.

Too Big to Block

Many companies have URL-filtering programs to block access to web sites with inappropriate workplace content, such as pornography and gambling. It may be tempting to add social media web sites to the list, but experts caution against it.

"Blocking is just scratching the surface. It’s a myopic view," says David Baer, president of Minneapolis-based Ethos Business Law, which co-authored a paper on averting the business risks of social media. Blocking eliminates, or severely limits, the opportunity for employers to use social media to achieve business goals. Plus, thanks to web-enabled mobile devices, blocking access from the company server doesn’t offer ironclad guarantees.

After his experience with the unproductive worker, Blalock considered blocking employees’ access to social media through a URL filter, but he decided against it. "I didn’t feel right doing it," he says. "I should be able to trust the people I’m employing. I think that trust has helped the situation."

HR professionals who have tackled the issue point out that blocking access is unlikely to make a difference for problem employees. Abusers of social media are "the sorts of employees who are going to cause problems in other ways, whether it’s cruising eBay, playing solitaire or making chains out of paperclips," says Laura Floyd, human resources manager for TDG Communications, a small advertising agency in Deadwood, S.D., who instituted an acceptable-use policy a year ago.

Another temptation may be to leave the issue to IT managers. But experts warn that the issues involved in social media usage—privacy, confidentiality, appropriate communication styles, productivity and time management—are squarely in HR’s wheelhouse. An IT policy doesn’t cover those issues, points out Carol Russell, CEO of Minneapolis-based advertising and marketing firm Russell Herder, which co-authored the social media report with Ethos Business Law.

However, URL filters and other technology tools managed by IT can provide valuable usage data if a problem should arise. HR professionals with experience in this area recommend using such reporting as a last resort. At The Winter, Wyman Cos., a staffing firm based in Waltham, Mass., a liberal usage policy encourages employees to use social media while reminding them of their responsibilities to clients and the company. "The IT department can track and monitor if we need to," says Michelle Roccia, senior vice president of corporate organizational development at Winter, Wyman.

Adding to the Policy Wheel

Social media has become so ubiquitous that experts say every company should have a policy on acceptable use. "Even if you’re not currently using social media tools for business reasons, you still should put together policy about employees’ personal use," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based ePolicy Institute and author of The e-Policy Handbook (AMACOM, 2001).

Put Social Media to Work for You

Social media isn’t just a cause of angst for HR professionals. It can be a powerful business tool. Here are some ways employers are leveraging social media to accomplish HR-related tasks:

Recruitment

  • At Waltham, Mass.-based staffing firm The Winter, Wyman Cos., recruiters use personal and corporate pages on Facebook and LinkedIn to announce openings and network with prospective clients.
  • Recruiters at a variety of companies are beginning to use Twitter to announce employment opportunities; job seekers can subscribe to their Twitter feeds to get notification when positions are available.
  • Innovis Health, operator of 21 multi-specialty clinics and a regional medical center in northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, uses YouTube for physician recruiting. "If I need a urologist, I’ll videotape the urology department," says Kris Olson, vice president of marketing, quality and physician services. "It’s fast, and it’s free."

Engagement

  • Some companies use a corporate Facebook page to communicate new programs or policies. Employees can react immediately and comment or ask questions.
  • Intuit, the Mountain View, Calif.-based software giant, uses a corporate blog and video sharing to keep employees around the world engaged in the corporate officers’ semiannual meeting.
  • "What an amazing way to quickly disseminate information on the state of the company and have everyone feel involved, whether they’re in California, the U.K. or India," says Kira Wampler, social-marketing leader for Intuit’s small-business group.


But that doesn’t necessarily mean writing new policies. "There are already rules in place for governing expression," says Ethan Yarbrough, president of Kirkland, Wash.-based Allyis Inc., a web design and development consultancy. Core values, codes of conduct, privacy and confidentiality policies likely are in the employee handbook. "You don’t need to re-create the wheel, maybe just add a few spokes," says Yarbrough. Start by adding social media references to existing policies.

In addition, experts recommend having a brief policy statement outlining corporate philosophy on social media. The policy should specify sites or tools encompassed by the statement, who is permitted to use them and for what purposes, restrictions on usage—only during lunch and break times for personal use, for example—and the consequences of infractions, which might include write-ups or blocking access for that employee. As with all new policies, employees should sign an acknowledgment of receipt and assert that they understand the policy when it is introduced.

Due to the ever-changing nature of social media, acceptable-use policies should be reviewed and updated at least on an annual basis. At Millward Brown, a market research and brand consulting firm with 77 offices around the world, usage policies are reviewed annually by a committee of IT and HR representatives. In addition, the server forces each user to re-acknowledge understanding of the policy every 60 days.

Combine Policy with Training

While many of the core issues are familiar, social media tools do add wrinkles. Consider these scenarios: 

An employee who works in research and development updates his Facebook status, bemoaning the fact that he has to cancel his weekend golf plans due to yet another project delay. Other Facebook users connect this with a highly anticipated product launch, and the company’s stock price declines.

A salesperson posts a derogatory comment on Twitter about a prospective client’s headquarters city as he lands there the day before a critical presentation. Someone forwards the tweet to the CEO, who cancels the meeting.

An employee is terminated for cause. A few weeks later, she asks a former colleague to recommend her on LinkedIn. The former colleague writes a glowing recommendation. The terminated employee later uses this recommendation as evidence in a discrimination suit, claiming she was terminated unfairly.

All of these situations could occur outside of working hours and without use of company-owned hardware. And while the confidentiality and compliance issues likely are already addressed in policies, employees may not have considered the ramifications in light of social media. In Russell’s experience, negative situations around social media rarely result from someone being malicious. More commonly, the problem is that employees’ use of social media "was too casual, and they didn’t think about it," she explains.

Hence, experts say that a policy alone is not enough. "If you simply put together this policy and pass it out, you’re going to have some resentful employees," says Flynn. "If you combine training with policy, most employees will then comply, but it’s hard to expect compliance from employees who are operating in the dark." Be sure to explain the "whys" behind the policy, and, wherever possible, use examples of appropriate and inappropriate use.

Depending on the size of your company, experts recommend segmenting training for employees with different levels of social media understanding. "Some Boomers still feel uncomfortable with e-mail. Now you’re telling them about Twitter? That’s an entirely different training issue from the Millennial who just posted his most recent party pictures on Facebook," says Bill Sherman, CEO of Intulogy LLC, a Henderson, Nev.-based training and development consultancy. Without appropriate training segmentation, "your policy is going to go in one ear and out the other."

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may not be around forever, but the technology that makes them possible is likely to expand. All businesses, large and small, will be touched; leaders must get ahead of the curve and harness the media’s power. "There’s risk in everything a business does," says Baer. "By taking appropriate steps, it’s possible to mitigate that risk—and take advantage of the rewards."

The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Correction

October’s HR Technology column, "Get the Benefits Message Out," included incorrect names for technology provider Univers Workplace Solutions of Hammonton, N.J.

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