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Employers should 'friend' social media in the workplace

Managing risks with appropriate policies and safeguards

By Brian Kreissl

Five or six years ago, when social media was just starting to catch on among the general public, several organizations adopted policies that banned the use of social media in the workplace.

Others installed blocking software so that employees would not be able to access sites like Facebook and MySpace at work.

At the time, employers had some fairly legitimate concerns with respect to employees wasting countless hours on social media. There were also issues surrounding employees divulging confidential organizational information and making defamatory or unduly disparaging comments about the organization or its products and services, as well as stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders or competitors.

Since the world of “Web 2.0” was so new, organizations weren’t sure what to make of social media. And since the use of social media for business purposes was still in its infancy, the natural tendency for many employers was to institute an outright ban on employees using social media at work.

Five years later, we’ve moved on. Employers now recognize that while social media has the potential to be a tremendous time waster, there are many legitimate work-related uses for such sites. With appropriate policies and safeguards in place, the benefits of social media generally outweigh the risks.

On a personal level, many people use social media as their preferred means of electronic communication. And because people’s work and personal lives are so intertwined, a rigid separation no longer makes sense.

People check their work e-mail after hours, and many employees regularly take work home with them at night. Therefore, aside from the very real issue of liability for unpaid overtime, there needs to be a little give and take on the part of employers.

Most enlightened employers recognize there’s little harm in allowing employees five minutes here and there to communicate with friends and family on Facebook or type a quick tweet on something of interest on Twitter. In many ways, this is similar to the issue of allowing employees to run the occasional short personal errand on work time; it can actually benefit both the employee and the employer with respect to productivity and employee engagement.

Organizations serious about attracting, retaining and engaging Generation Y in particular need to take note. If an employer is not seen as “hip” and “with it” when it comes to social media, younger employees will vote with their feet — or may even turn down a job offer from such an organization.

For example, Cisco recently completed a study of 2,800 college students and young professionals in 14 countries that found 56 per cent of respondents would refuse a job offer from a company that banned social media, or would at least find a way to circumvent such a policy. One-third of respondents under 30 even said they would prioritize “social media freedom, device flexibility and work mobility” over salary.

Best practices in social media use in the workplace

In spite of the proliferation of social media, unfettered access to and use of social media in the workplace still poses some very serious risks for organizations. Yet, by adopting some of the best practices below, organizations can help ensure that social media use doesn’t get out of control.

•Develop a clearly articulated social media strategy for the organization.

•Determine who has the authority to speak on behalf of the organization and for what purposes.

•Clearly document responsibilities for social media use with respect to different departments such as sales, marketing, HR, public relations, legal and IT.

•Develop and communicate a comprehensive policy on social media use within the organization. Include considerations such as excessive social media use, divulging confidential information, disparaging or defamatory comments, off-duty comments, monitoring social media use, online or “cyber bullying,” etc.

•Develop branding guidelines for social media communications.

•Determine how to deal with negative comments about the organization, or its products/services or employees.

•Consider whether it’s appropriate or not to “friend” supervisors.

•Ensure real, identifiable people are appointed as spokespeople for the organization.

•Ensure comments are responded to in a timely manner.

•Understand authenticity and transparency are of paramount importance when it comes to social media communications.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.  

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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