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Scope—This article provides an overview of the use of social media by
employers and their employees. Topics include common business applications of
social networking sites, employee use of social media at work and potential
risks of social media in the workplace. The article covers the role of human
resources, policy development, and emerging legal and regulatory issues. The
article does not cover marketing-related applications of social media.
The exploding growth of social media has significantly changed the way people communicate at home and at work. Social media applications include sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, Yelp, Flickr, Snapchat, Instagram, Second Life, WordPress and ZoomInfo. Not only has social media changed the way we communicate, but these applications present great opportunities for businesses in the areas of public relations, internal and external communications, recruiting, organizational learning and collaboration, and more. See Using Social Media to Find, Manage Talent.
This article discusses frequently used business applications for social media, including recruiting, building employee engagement and communication, strategic real-time listening tools for business intelligence, and expanding learning opportunities among employees. Another vital application of social media by employers is as a knowledge-sharing platform, with employees at all levels using blogs, microblogs (similar to Twitter), expert directories and communities of practice. These tools and groups turn social media into collaborative tools to improve work product and workflow.
Also presented are the potential issues created when employees use their personal social media accounts while at the office, possibly affecting productivity, data security and network security. "Friending" and other contact among employees on social media can open the employer to possible legal issues. Even the social media use policies that employers write to help control use can pose legal issues if poorly written or administered. HR in many organizations is taking the lead in developing, communicating and enforcing social media policies and on keeping tabs on 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.
Those forms can include 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, Google Docs and Ryze, a site linking business professionals.
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).
Because social media are relatively new territory for both employers and employees, many questions still exist about how these tools should and should not operate in the workplace. For employers, the key questions are how to get business benefits out of these platforms and how to ensure that employee use of social media while at work is neither distracting nor potentially harmful to the organization. See SHRM Social Media in the Workplace Survey Findings and An Examination of How Social Media is Embedded in Business Strategy and Operations.
In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that Millennials (those born after 1985) make up 34 percent of the U.S. workforce. Given that this group of employees has grown up actively communicating via myriad social media sites and devices, the use of social media is a workplace trend with staying power for the foreseeable future. Employers are aware that social media raise questions about appropriate use. Proskauer's 2013/2014 "Social Media in the Workplace Around the World Survey" found that 80 percent of companies now have social media policies, and 70 percent of organizations with such policies had taken disciplinary action against an employee for violating their policies.
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 generally have some presence in social media, be it the CEO having a presence on Twitter or a 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. 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 platforms vary based on platform type, features, industry and the organization itself.
Why should an organization have its own official presence on social media? Reasons include the following:
Despite the business pluses of these sites and tools, they also create issues of security and legal liability for employers, and still relatively little case law exists for organizations to turn to when weighing the risks. 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:
See What are the advantages and disadvantages of social networking sites? What should we include in a policy?
Common Business Applications
Social media can be powerful business tools, helping employers with everything from recruitment to employee engagement to communications.
Below are some of the ways that employers are leveraging social media for maximum organizational benefit.
In the not-so-distant past, recruiters and staffing managers pored over resumes, posted vacancies on job boards and hosted expensive job fairs to find candidates. Now, the use of social media sites is pervasive in the recruitment function, with 84 percent of surveyed organizations using social media for recruitment. See Using Social Media for Talent Acquisition—Recruitment and Screening and Is Social Media Making Recruiters Complacent?
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 relationships with passive job candidates who are not currently job-hunting. New recruiting applications designed for smartphones, tablets and other devices can let recruiters create better online searches or exchange information easily. Social media allow creation of specialty recruiting sites for specific industries. Employers are also using Twitter to announce employment opportunities to job seekers who subscribe to the company's Twitter feeds. See Social Recruiting Goes Viral and Social Networking Websites Popular as Employer Recruiting Tool.
The use of social media in recruitment carries legal risks unique to the social media environment. For more about these risks, see the "Legal Issues" section below.
Employees tend to feel 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. See Experts: Flexible Workplaces Should Rely on Social Media.
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.
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. See Social Media Can Enhance Employees' Learning.
Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration
Social media provide a great opportunity to leverage the deep and 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 Group Learning.
Internal discussion boards or 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.
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 other microblogging 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 Chatter 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.
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 such as Ning.
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.
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.
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.
Role of Human Resources
HR may be tempted to leave social media matters to the organization's information technology managers. But experts warn that the issues involved in social media use—privacy, confidentiality, appropriate communication styles, productivity and time management—are squarely in HR's wheelhouse. Policies on appropriate use of these evolving media are HR's responsibility.
Working with IT, risk management specialists and marketing personnel, HR must structure policies to minimize risk to both the employer's security and its reputation. At the same time, HR must help the employer leverage the use of social media for the organization's benefit. HR is also typically responsible for enforcing social media policies. (HR professionals can keep up with changes to social media practices and policies by signing up for SHRM's free Social Media E-Newsletter.) See SHRM Survey: HR Has Key Role in Corporate Social Media Efforts and SHRM Survey Findings: An Examination of How Social Media is Embedded in Business Strategy and Operations.
HR also generally takes primary responsibility for developing and promoting guidelines and training to ensure that employees understand the expectations about their use of social media, both at work and at home. Lessons for employees on social media etiquette, together with clear expectations from the employer, ensure that employees know how, when and where they can use social media. HR also takes the lead in developing appropriate internal documents to communicate policy requirements, changes and clarifications to a company's employees.
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. See Why You Need a Policy if Your Employees are Twittering.
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
According to the 2011 SHRM social media survey, about 40 percent of organizations have a formal social media policy. The most frequently cited elements included in these policies were the following:
Although a growing number of employers use social media, 43 percent of the respondents in the 2011 SHRM survey reported that their organizations block access to social media sites on company-owned computers and handheld electronic devices. The survey found that larger organizations (more than 500 employees) are more likely to block access to social media sites and to track employee use. See SHRM Social Media in the Workplace Survey Findings.
Employers do have the right to prohibit any personal use of company computers, 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.
What a policy should cover
An effective social networking policy generally does the following:
See Social Media Acceptable-Use Policy and 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:
See Social Media Policies Slowly Catch on Worldwide.
Social media are young, and case law about social media and employment is in its early days. Among the legal issues employers should watch are policy content, problems with using social media for recruitment and hiring, pitfalls of social media "friendings," and questions about ownership of materials posted online.
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. 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. See NLRB Issues Second Social Media Report.
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 Rejects Common Practices: What is HR to Do? and Firing Employees for Facebook Posts Violated NLRA.
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:
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.
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. See Maryland Enacts Social Media's First Password Law.
A 2015 Montana law prohibits employers from requiring employees to grant access to their social media accounts or to discipline them because of social media activity. See Montana Law Bars Employers from Employees Social Media Information.
See also Facebook Passwords: The Brouhaha and What You Should Know and Potentially Illegal Practice of Demanding Passwords Criticized.
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 MySpace 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.
Measuring the results of social media is becoming a common practice. Common types of metrics tracked include:
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.
Limits to Sustainable Social Media Strategies
To sustain and maximize business uses of social media, having the right technologies is only one part of the equation. Even the most user-friendly and feature-rich tools will not overcome a culture in which employees are discouraged by managers—overtly or subtly—from using social tools for fear of taking time away from "real" work.
Another impediment to business use of these media is failure to assign skilled talent to manage and cultivate the organization's own participation on social networks. Employers need to have "social media champions" to collect the most relevant content, draw attention to it, keep conversations going and reward people who are the most active in sharing their knowledge with others.
A sustainable social media strategy requires both a culture that encourages knowledge sharing and a team with a wide array of competencies dedicated to managing and promoting these potentially powerful social media initiatives. Without this focus, organizations can quickly lose traction as busy employees find little time or reason to use these collaborative tools amid the demands of daily work.
Templates and Tools
Social Media Policy
Social Computing Guidelines
SHRM Survey Findings: Using Social Media for Talent Acquisition—Recruitment and Screening
SHRM Survey Findings: An Examination of How Social Media is Embedded in Business Strategy and Operations
SHRM Social Media in the Workplace Survey Findings
SHRM Webinar: How to Socialize your Talent Hiring process: Use of Social Media and Mobile Platforms to Attract Talent
A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn
What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube
30 Days to Social Media Success: The 30-Day Results Guide to Making the Most of Twitter, Blogging, LinkedIn, and Facebook
Tweet This! Twitter for Business
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