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Social media in the workplace: Oh what to do!? (part 2)

In case you missed it, this post continues a post that you can find here.

social media at work

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Some companies have applied traditional methods to the problem of social media at work: the soft approach attempts to monitor and regulate via policies; and the hard approach simply slams the door on employee access and use with a heavy hand. Neither of these works particularly well. The former will almost certainly lead to employee confusion and efforts—either intentional or not—to circumvent the policy, and the latter will likely result in discontented employees finding other ways to work around the blockade. In addition, both are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce fully (these days, employees can easily access the Internet from their phones); and attempts to bypass or evade controls could even lead to damage of physical or virtual IT resources (an employee who tries to get around or disable a firewall could inadvertently open the company’s servers to outside attack or leak confidential information).

It should be clear that a policy is necessary to address employee conduct with respect to social media and corporate communications. Employers need to have clear official statements in place that outline employees’ responsibilities around confidential information and general conduct. However, while policies will help you protect your assets and image by discouraging undesirable employee behaviour and strengthening your case should you end up in court, they can’t stop wilful or careless employees from letting slip some damaging tidbit of information—or simply abusing social media at work, however you define “abuse”.

If keeping track of all employee Internet activity is beyond the physical and technical means of most employers—especially small and medium-sized companies—then what to do?

For control, employers will have to look at something that can examine all of the Internet and intranet traffic among your employees, allowing some things and blocking others. A review of any such system is beyond the scope of this post, but you can find a limited list of content-filtering applications and hardware on Wikipedia.

These systems offer various levels of control and security over internal and external communications. For example, you might want to control and record how long employees use a certain site and which software they can use and download; you might want to warn employees when they try to use certain words (such as the company name) in social media communications; you might want to record all instant messaging communications for compliance; and you might want to limit uploads and downloads or censor images. A good content control system will allow you to do these things and much more—and easily make changes when necessary.

This sort of control can be used to balance the soft and hard approaches to regulate the use of social media at work, but it’s important to remember that many of today’s (and probably most of tomorrow’s) employees will wince at even the least limit to their social media interaction.

The big thing is—and this is where the conversation usually gets stuck—for the moment, employees want to use social media, and they will likely do so, regardless of what employers tell them. You’re better off compromising than fighting with them, especially when the benefits of implementing a quality social media strategy should far outweigh the costs.

There is another semi-solution that employers should consider seriously—and not just in the realm of social media: setting the example from the top-down. Managers/supervisors must act as role models for staff, because they are the most direct example of appropriate company behaviour for employees. If workers find their supervisors scanning Facebook or tweeting throughout the day, they are more likely to think that the company accepts those activities as business as usual. If employees receive a strong and consistent message and example from higher-ups that the workplace is for work, they will have less justification for using social media for personal reasons. No regime of control can replace a culture of strong employee relations.

Employees might argue that their social media personae are simply extensions of their selves and there’s no real line between “work use” and “personal use” any more. Maybe this is true. Surely, occupations that rely on networking could say this, and maybe highly collaborative researchers. It seems clear that the workplace is changing and the nature of work along with it, but the question is: what place do social media have in that changing workplace and work?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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3 thoughts on “Social media in the workplace: Oh what to do!? (part 2)
  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for the response Wayne!

    You’ve pretty much got right to the heart of the issue: do social networking and social media enhance the workplace or just drag down productivity? And is there a way to determine if your employees are using social media in a productive way rather than simply for personal use?

    I don’t think anyone can reasonably predict what the workplace of the near future will look like, but if I were to venture blodly into that unknown region, I would say at least that many more workplaces will offer their employees flexible work arrangements and telecommuting, which might prevent the employer from being able to micro-manage what their employees do during “work hours” anyway.

    But don’t take my word for it! 😉

    Of course, salespersons often already fall into this flexible work category, and employers measure their output differently than others’…

  • This is an increasingly important issue in the workplace. I think we must start from the premise that work time is for work. We wouldn’t condone an employee doing their personal grocery shopping on company time, so why should we condone them Facebooking with their friends about last night’s party. The issue gets a little clouded, however, when a salesperson says they are using social media to identify opportunities. How do we fairly and effectively decide who can use social media and who can’t?

  • Adam Gorley says:

    This recent article from ComputerWorld offers some interesting statistics on social networking use at U.S. companies. According to one survey, 54% of employers prohibit their employees from accessing social media websites.

    Click here to view the article