Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On social media policies in the workplace

TrainingZone magazine is running an interesting article by Neil Davey, looking at the rise of social media in the workplace.

Of course, many organisations have a blanket ban on the use of such media... or at least, they think they do. A closer inspection will almost certainly reveal the presence of all manner of social tools in the workplace. This tells me a few things.

Firstly, the understanding among senior execs (and even the IT gatekeepers) of what constitutes social media is often as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, which results in inconsistent bans and rules. So there are often workarounds to access various social media.

Secondly, people are more resourceful than management gives them credit for. Where such bans are in place, many users are resorting to using their phones to access them. At a recent Twitter workshop, several attendees 'owned up' to using Twitter via their phones because of the ban at work.

Thirdly, the 'threat' aspect has been identified, but the 'potential benefit' aspect has been ignored. Davey's article picks up on one significant aspect of this and cites Ann Bevitt of Morrison Foerster:

"Although employers cannot control employees’ use of social networking sites outside the workplace, they can provide guidance where such use could be associated with employees’ employment. For example, if employees choose to identify themselves as employees in their personal social networking activities, they should be encouraged to make clear that any views expressed are their own and not those of their employer. Moreover, no links should be provided to employers’ websites."
This harks back to a topic I have touched on many times - that grey area. Let's look at a hypothesis:

Kate is a designer at ColourCoded, a clothing manufacturer whose lines are aimed at women who have been colour-coded and had their ideal palettes identified. In her spare time, she likes to go hiking.

When Kate engages in social media spaces about the various trails she has hiked, she is on safe territory. She can even develop a global reputation as the go-to person on the difficulty grading of the various hiking trails. No problem.

Kate's employer may have noted her skill with words and they may choose to include social media engagement among her official duties. Part of her job may be to look after ColourCoded's social media presence. This is also relatively safe territory, because the ground rules can be laid down. The dos and don'ts identified.

Where the ground gets shaky is when Kate starts to engage in her personal capacity in social media spaces on the topic of clothing: what styles to wear, what fabrics work for whom, what colours people should wear, etc. It is very tough to lay down the guidelines for her presence in this space, without encroaching on Kate's right to freedom of expression.

This is an area Davey has addressed in his article:
"Organisations – particularly those at the larger end of the spectrum – are faced with an enormous task when it comes to identifying and responding to all of the conversations, questions and posts taking place online about their brand. Businesses need the extra eyes that their employees provide. But by giving their staff carte blanche to respond to any and every post they find, they run a very serious risk of damaging the brand reputation, rather than improving. Any message by an employee that isn’t in line with the company message, or that is offensive or unprofessional, will reflect badly on the brand. The business either media trains every person on its payroll, or risks unleashing a firm’s load of loose cannons onto the web."
I'm not sure that the idea of training every person on the payroll has legs, and, as you know by now, I have an enormous fondness for loose cannons (being one myself). But most organisations have clauses in their employment contracts about damage to the organisation's reputation. Mouthing off down the pub has never really been looked upon with favour, and we're more or less in the same sort of waters, here, albeit with the potential for exponentially increased impact.

I would suggest that guidelines should be set in place - every organisation must consider its reputation, after all. I would further suggest that the organisation should have some form of online induction process, with a link to a range of tools that can provide guidance on company policy on a range of issues (including social media usage). Staff members should be able to access the organisation's policy documents on any subject at any point... and these should be easy to find (it's remarkable that I have any hair left, considering the experiences I have had trying to find policy documents in the past) and easy to read. Policy documents should also be reviewed and revised every now and again, and staff members should be involved in this process.

Staff members should be expected to consider the organisation's reputation, too, and be held to account when their actions are considered to have done damage.

However, the 'training every staff member' thing smacks to me just a little of the sort of butt-covering box-ticking compliance that makes me shudder. It runs the risk of, "Right, we mentioned once during your training course 2 years ago that this was not permitted, so you're fired."

I would like to see an approach that is more dynamic than that, and one which engages the staff members directly, rather than being handed down to them from on high.

1 comment:

Harold Jarche said...

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies, and management had better get used to it or just cut off access to the entire Internet.

Also, brands are an emergent property of the sum of the actions of employers, employees, customers and suppliers. In a networked economy, they cannot be managed, but people can be supported to pursue a brand vision that aligns with their principles. As all of us on the Net already know, once you put your stuff out there, you're no longer in control.