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Managing and Leveraging Workplace Use of Social Media


The growth of social media has significantly changed the way people communicate at home and at work. Common social media applications include sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. Not only has social media changed the way we communicate, but it presents great opportunities for businesses in the areas of public relations, internal and external communications, recruiting, organizational learning and collaboration, and more.

There are also potential issues with social media use in the workplace. Concerns with employees using their personal social media accounts during work hours, "friending" of subordinate employees and potential misuse of social media platforms. The development and administration of social media use policies is a top concern for employers. HR often takes the lead in developing, communicating and enforcing social media policies and on keeping up with the changing legal landscape of social media.


Social media are information-based tools and technologies used to share information and facilitate communications with internal and external audiences. Well-known examples of social media platforms are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but social media can take many different forms including Internet forums, online profiles, podcasts, pictures and video, e-mail, instant messaging, music sharing programs, and Internet-based voice services (voice over IP), to name just a few. Social media also include applications sometimes known as "Web 2.0," a term encompassing technologies such as blogs, texting, wikis, and other applications like Google Reader and Google Docs.

Organizations can make use of social media in a variety of ways. Departments can hold brainstorming sessions or maintain ongoing conversations with questions and answers on a blog; teams can use wikis to manage projects, share best practices and research case studies; the CEO can keep a blog or record a podcast; and organizations can immediately deliver news to employees.

Collaborative technologies are valuable in the workplace because of their effectiveness in improving understanding and teamwork, building relationships and developing lateral communication. The novel aspect of social media is their conversational tone: Knowledge sharing takes place through processes including discussion with questions and answers (online forums), collaborative editing (wikis) or storytelling with reactions (blogs).

Business Case

Social media is a not a fad that will soon fizzle out. Organizations that do not include social media in their business strategy run the risk of losing relevance in the market. Even traditional "brick and mortar" companies have some presence in social media, be it the CEO on Twitter or a business page on Facebook. More and more, companies are including social media as part of their strategic planning processes, including recruitment, training and development, and to influence organizational change. Even Donald Trump gives partial credit to Twitter for the success of his presidential election.

Recruitment may see improvements in reducing time-to-fill statistics and in finding more (and possibly more qualified) candidates by casting a much wider net. Through the use of social media, organizations may reduce training costs and increase self-directed employee development and continuous skill enhancement. Social media can also be used to reinforce organizational culture, or to change that culture through communication.

Pros and Cons of Using Social Media

As with most technologies, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and no single right way for an organization to use social media applications. The benefits and drawbacks of social networking vary based on platform type, features, industry and the organization itself.

Possible advantages

Why should an organization have its own official presence on social media? Reasons include the following:

  • Facilitates open communication, leading to enhanced information discovery and delivery.
  • Allows employees to discuss ideas, post news, ask questions and share links.
  • Provides an opportunity to widen business contacts.
  • Targets a wide audience, making it a useful and effective recruitment tool.
  • Improves business reputation and client base with minimal use of advertising.
  • Promotes diversity and inclusion.  
  • Expands market research, implements marketing campaigns, delivers communications and directs interested people to specific websites.

Possible disadvantages

Despite the business pluses of these sites and tools, they also create issues of security and legal liability for employers. Use of social media at work—by employees for personal use or by the employer as an official tool—can open up organizations to the following:

  • The possibility for hackers to commit fraud and launch spam and virus attacks.
  • The risk of employees falling prey to online scams that seem genuine, resulting in data or identity theft or a compromise of the company's computer security.
  • A potential outlet for negative comments from employees and/or customers about the organization. See Social Media Is a Major Consideration in Wave of Sexual Harassment Allegations.
  • Legal consequences should employees misuse social media to engage in illegal activity.

See What are the pros and cons of using social media in the workplace? What should we include in a policy?

Common Business Applications

The following are examples of how employers are leveraging social media for maximum organizational benefit.


The use of social media sites is pervasive in the recruitment function, with most organizations using social media for recruitment.

Social media sites can be used for informal networking, mining for talent or simply posting openings. For example, employers can use social networking sites to post challenging technical questions and then contact respondents who provide the best answers.

Recruiters can use relationship management tools to build and track connections with passive job candidates who are not currently job-hunting. Recruiting applications designed for smartphones, tablets and other devices allow recruiters to more effectively search online or exchange information. Recruiters can also create specialty recruiting sites for specific industries. Employers commonly use sites such as Twitter and Facebook to announce employment opportunities to those who subscribe to or follow the company's news feeds.


Hiring? Look Beyond LinkedIn

How to Use Social Media for Applicant Screening

What to Do When a Job Candidate's Social Media Triggers Red Flags

The use of social media in recruitment also carries legal risks unique to the social media environment. For more about these risks, see the "Legal Issues" section below.

Employee engagement

Employees are often more engaged in the workplace if they feel informed and if they believe their opinions are heard. Social media can give employers a way to spread the word as well as a way to channel employee comments.

Some organizations use a corporate Facebook page to communicate new programs or policies to their employees. A key benefit is that employees can react to announcements immediately with comments or questions. Other employers use a corporate blog or video sharing to keep employees around the world engaged in regular meetings. Social media can be an excellent tool for quickly disseminating information on the state of the organization and have all employees feel involved, making them feel more connected and more a part of the organization and its mission.

External communications

Organizations can use social media to promote their brand. Many organizations have a digital presence on sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn or other industry-related sites. Leaders often have a presence on Twitter or a blogging site to broadcast important developments within the organization. Organizations use Yammer or other collaboration sites to link both internal groups and external sources such as vendors, clients or industry experts.

Learning applications

Social media are radically changing the way learning happens in organizations. Social media allow employers to embrace the younger generation's need to collaborate and learn, which in turn will transform the workplace into an environment where people learn naturally with each other all the time, not just during a single training event. Social media allows for interacting with employees both before, during and after the actual training session. But organizations will need to change how they think about training and learning programs. Training models that focus on controlling the content and pushing information down to learners will not work in the collaborative environment of social media.

Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration

Social media provide opportunity to leverage the diverse expertise many organizations already possess. Rather than turn to outside consultants or third-party providers, companies can harness internal expertise with tools, including microblogging, wikis, YouTube-like repositories of learning videos, expert directories or communities of practice. See Why Social Learning May Be Key to Solving Workplace Problems.

Internal social media spaces allow employees to collaborate and exchange ideas and experiences. These tools are also being used for self-service benefits enrollment, matching current employees to open positions and more.

Some of the most innovative ways to foster collaboration across an enterprise include those listed below.


In blogs, writers regularly post entries for public view, often on specific topics—or on behalf of a specific organization. Blogs for business can be aimed at attracting the attention of potential employees, promoting a brand or a company, or disseminating information out to customers, among other uses. SeeSHRM Blog.

Blogging can be external—reaching the public—or internal—to improve business processes. For example, Marsh Inc., a global risk management and insurance broker, uses blogs internally for training. When the company wanted to teach finance to one employee group, it did not enlist instructional designers or vendors to create or tailor traditional training courses. Marsh turned instead to its finance experts, who created a 27-part blog series that included both written content and videos created with flip cameras and screen-capture technology.

Microblogging and microsharing

These technologies allow users to exchange information in small snippets and in real time. Twitter is an example of a microblog, but today some organizations use similar tools they can secure behind their computer firewalls and restrict to those inside the company. Employees can ask or answer questions, exchange information with peers, find out who has needed expertise and quickly give their input on projects. They can post their comments about documents, proposals or presentations. Yammer and Slack are other examples of microblogging platforms designed for internal communication. Employers are also using microsharing programs to make these immediate communications part of everyday workflow, rather than using them as stand-alone tools. For example, Marsh uses the tool Socialtext in its budgeting process. The tool gives users a box at the bottom of a budgeting screen where they can make comments as they go through a document, and others can see those comments instantly. Managers across divisions can communicate in real time to ask questions and address their budgeting challenges. See Are Collaboration Platforms Time Wasters or Productivity Boosters?

Expert directories

Another social media tool—an expert directory—simplifies and improves the process of connecting subject matter experts to others within an organization. These directories can include information on experts' specific competencies, current and past projects, and more. Creating a culture in which experts are willing to share their knowledge internally can be extraordinarily powerful.

Similar benefits can be enjoyed by others through the use of existing public-domain networking sites or basic freeware.

Communities of practice

To foster informal, employee-driven learning, employers have created communities of practice, groups where workers with similar expertise or interests can swap ideas and ask questions on internal forums. See The Year Ahead in Learning Technology.

For instance, Accenture integrates its knowledge-sharing systems with thousands of communities of practice. Community members ask questions on discussion boards, contribute or download content on specific topics, and have content digests e-mailed to them.

Employers need to realize that such communities change membership over time and that employee participation waxes and wanes. Also, not all of the comments shared by employees on discussion boards, blogs or wikis are factually accurate. Those overseeing social media networks have to walk a fine line between censoring content and ensuring that information is accurate.

Video instruction

The use of video has gained traction as an employee learning tool, fueled by the growth of smartphones with high-definition video and broadband networks. As a result, more organizations are creating YouTube-like repositories on enterprise networks where employees post videos created to share knowledge.

Potential Risks of Using Social Media

The growing use of social media is not without risks. Employee use of these sites, whether for personal use or as an official part of the employer's social media strategy, can open the door to certain liabilities.

Exposing networks to attack

Employees may not be aware of how their actions online could compromise organizational security. Visiting social networking sites at work can expose company networks to malware, including adware and spyware. Malware, or malicious software, is designed to take control of and damage a computer. It can help hackers steal identities and data.

Organizations must educate employees about how a downloaded application or even a simple click on a received link can infect their computers and the network at large. Employers should also warn workers not to click on suspicious links and to pay careful attention when providing personal information online.

Distributing confidential information

A critical concern about social networking platforms is that they encourage people to share personal information. Even the most cautious and well-meaning people can give away information they should not; the same applies to what is posted on company-approved social networking platforms.

Organizations that maintain an official Twitter feed or a corporate Facebook page want public recognition—in fact, the point is to attract followers. These employers keep, and often publicize, statistics about their numbers of followers and views. This dynamic is where the danger lies. In an attempt to be personal and provocative, employers that allow any employee to post on the company account also leave themselves open to problems—such as potential disclosure of confidential organization information, violation of employment policies or other rules, or public relations headaches.

Creating tattletales

Another issue for employers is the problem of employees tattling to managers about other employees' personal posts on social media sites, especially when those items could get the poster in trouble at work. HR needs to anticipate this eventuality and have a procedure in place: Managers take no initial action, and HR checks the questionable posts first because the posts may be protected speech.

Social Media Guidelines

A formal social media policy is a necessity. Employers do have the right to prohibit any personal use of company computers and block employee access to social media sites, but such a prohibition is not likely to yield optimal results. If an employer decides to permit employees access to social networking platforms, then the employer needs a comprehensive and well-defined policy to prevent abuse. See How to Create an Effective Social Media Policy.

What a policy should cover

An effective social networking policy generally does the following:

  • Defines what the organization means when it refers to "social networking."
  • Establishes a clear and defined purpose for the policy.
  • Communicates the benefits of social networking and of having a policy.
  • Provides a clear platform for educating employees.
  • Takes into consideration any legal consequences of not following laws.
  • Refers to proprietary and confidential information at risk.
  • Talks about productivity in terms of social networking.
  • Establishes expected behavioral norms in the use of social networking.
  • Provides guidance regarding social networking that could be associated with the organization, employees or customers. Some employers may prohibit posting of company information on social networking sites without the employer's explicit consent.
  • Outlines disciplinary measures the employer will take if employees violate social media policy.

See Social Media Policy.

Social networking do's and don'ts

Specifically, comprehensive policies and training efforts about social media need to convey to employees that they should:

  • Exercise good judgment and common sense.
  • Pause before posting.
  • Not allow social networking to interrupt productivity.
  • Be mindful of their privacy settings.
  • Refrain from anonymity.
  • Be polite and responsible.
  • Be accountable and correct mistakes.
  • Use disclaimers or speak in the first person to make it clear the opinions expressed are not those of their employer.
  • Bring work-related complaints directly to HR, not through postings on social media sites or the Internet.
  • Remember the audience and that what is being said might create a perception about the employer.

Legal Issues

Among the legal issues employers should watch are policy content, problems with using social media for recruitment and hiring, social media "friendings" and questions about ownership of materials posted online. See Can we force an employee to take discriminatory statements off a personal Facebook page? and Employees May Be Fired for Hate Speech on Social Media.

Policies and protected activity

Any policy should be in the form of a guideline, not an absolute rule. If a guideline is made into a rule, the employer may possibly violate the National Labor Relations Act, which says employees have the right to engage in "protected concerted activity." In a nutshell, when two or more employees discuss the terms and conditions of employment in a way that is designed or intended to effect change, they have the right to do that—and this protection applies to employee interactions through the use of social media too. See Congressional Staffers Detail Toxic Workplaces, Poor Treatment.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is actively shaping the legal framework of social media use by employees. In several cases, the NLRB found social media policies overbroad and unlawful because the policies discouraged protected concerted activity. According to the NLRB, the mere existence of an overly broad social media policy exposes the employer to an unfair labor practice charge even if no disciplinary action is taken against an employee. NLRB is building case law on social media and the workplace through its rulings on adverse actions involving employee use of social media use. Employers should become familiar with NLRB's decisions. See NLRB Memo Clarifies Rules for Workplace Social Media Policies.

Recruitment and hiring issues

Employers must exercise caution when using social networks for recruiting or when viewing candidates' personal social media profiles while in the recruiting or hiring processes. Social media can play a role in the screening process, but employers should consider when and how to use social media this way and weigh potential legal pitfalls:

  • Access to protected information about candidates. When looking at candidates' social media profiles, HR professionals may learn information they should not have when screening candidates. A candidate could claim that a potential employer did not offer a job because of information found on a social networking site, which discusses legally protected categories such as the candidate's race, ethnicity, age, associations, family relationships or political views. To avoid problems, employers should ensure they do not use social media to screen applicants when deciding who gets an interview. They should also require that HR, not the hiring manager, conduct any social media reviews—and only during the background check of the finalist, when the HR professional already knows the finalist's equal employment opportunity profile. See Screening Candidates' Social Media May Lead to TMI, Discrimination Claims.
  • Negligent hiring claims. An employer can be liable for harm its employees inflict on others when the employer knew or should have known of the employee's potential risk to cause harm, or if the risk would have been discovered by a reasonable investigation. For example, if derogatory information about a workplace violence incident that could have foreshadowed the bad behavior were available on the perpetrator's public social networking profile, the employer might be held liable for negligence in not using this information when the hiring decision was made. See Viewpoint: Conduct Careful Background Checks for Racism.

Risky "friendships"

Online "friending" between managers and employees increases the chance—should a working relationship turn sour—of additional claims in any subsequent employment litigation. Managers will all too easily wind up with too much information if they have "friended" their employees, including (as with recruiting and hiring issues above) personal information that might fall within a protected category under federal or state employment laws. A fired or disciplined employee might later argue that the real reason for any adverse employment action was based on personal information that the manager learned by viewing the employee's social media site.

If managers and employees become each other's contacts on professional sites such as LinkedIn, the online relationship can come back to bite the employer. For example, if a supervisor or manager writes an online recommendation for an employee and later fires that employee, the employee might be able to cite the online recommendation as evidence that he or she was not performing poorly. Employers need policies about recommendations or other comments managers may or may not make on such sites.

Yet employers might be reluctant simply to prohibit managers from friending employees. Such a prohibition might itself be the target of legal challenges under laws guaranteeing the right of privacy and the right to associate, or under laws restricting employers from regulating lawful off-premises conduct.

Password requests

Growing risks and legal implications exist when employers ask applicants and employees for their passwords to social media sites. In 2012 Maryland became the first state to pass legislation to prohibit employers from requiring access to social media passwords. Since then, more than 25 states have enacted similar laws. While information posted publicly to a social media site may be fair game, employers should never ask an individual to allow the employer access to information that is password protected.

Ownership disputes

Lawsuits over social media are on the rise as employers and former employees wrangle over who owns Twitter handles and followers, as well as LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends.

In one case, a website sued an editor who left but took his Twitter followers with him; the site maintained that those followers belonged to the site, not to the individual editor. The followers were effectively a customer list generated when the editor worked for the site, the site's lawyers argued. In another case, a former employee sued her employer for access to her LinkedIn account, which the employer cut off when she left the company because the account had been maintained for her by company staff.

Organizations should ensure that social media policies say who owns those accounts and their followers and what happens to those accounts if an employee leaves. See When Employees Leave: Who Owns Social Media Accounts?


Measuring the results of social media strategies is a common practice. The types of metrics tracked include:

  • Visitors and sources of traffic.
  • Network size (followers, fans, members).
  • Quantity of commentary about brand or product.

Monitoring data are only valuable if the organization is tracking and analyzing metrics relevant to it and then applying the information to improve its social media strategy. As part of their social media strategy, organizations should identify what important metrics to track. Undoubtedly, the range of metrics to consider will continue to evolve as social media use continues to expand.