How is HR using social media?

Social media can be a powerful tool for organizations, from recruiting and building an employer brand to fostering employee communications. We asked 5 senior HR leaders from across the country how they’re tweeting, poking and linking their way through the day
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/22/2011

Jennifer Ricci
Vice-president, employee experience

Toronto-based Kobo is a global ebook retailer with 270 employees

Having been with Kobo about nine months, Jennifer Ricci, vice-president of employee experience, is leading the way when it comes to social media initiatives. And her extensive background in technology and recruiting, along with strategy in financial services, helps with her efforts.

“I look at things from more of a sales and customer and engagement perspective, developing pipelines and so forth,” she says.

Ricci was hired to help drive strategy and focus on culture as Kobo has seen a lot of growth recently. It has about 270 employees but expects to reach 300 by the end of the year.

“I was presented with a challenge — explosive growth, a ton of distractions, multiple conflicting priorities. Departmental silos were starting to form because of a lack of tools and time to communicate,” says Ricci. “There was global expansion, so you had to deal with time zones and trying to feed communication. You no longer had the town halls, (they) weren’t as effective and the hallway conversations weren’t getting to Australia.

“So the mandate was to really support and lift and grow the culture and try not to lose the essence of what made Kobo — they call it magical and it really is.”

Kobo’s CEO gave Ricci full autonomy to use her background, intuition and any technology to make the employee experience “untouchable” or the best out there, she says.

“Our product is the only social ereader in the world… and it’s built around the philosophy that sharing and building communities and having an unbeatable experience is going to differentiate us as a consumer, so why not implement that internally, why not break down some of the communication barriers and allow technology to help us share?”

The company is using a platform called Ripple, a social feed with different modules that allows the organization to, first and foremost, share feedback, along with being able to track and rally behind company goals, recognize employees on the spot, track activity or engagement around actions and goals, share company updates and create a social feed that appears on TVs throughout the organization.

“All the managers and even the employees with the social tool have the live data and information in front of them to be able to feel the pulse of the organization and be alerted to, obviously, any recognition that’s required, any milestones that are being achieved as they happen or anything that requires attention,” says Ricci.

Every time an employee lives a value and is recognized by a co-worker on Ripple, he is given a badge, such as “Leading with speed” or “Competing to win.”

“You have a constant reminder of the values and that employees are living the values and it also becomes very clear which employees are living the values and which employees are recognizing others,” she says. “So it almost gives you insight into the leadership pipeline, in a roundabout kind of way.”

From the recruiting side, social media has helped Ricci set up an internal recruiting function — similar to a search firm — and maintain an external, consistent message.

“Social (media) has done that for me tenfold inside of Kobo. Kobo has so many employees that are themselves very active in social media — they are thought leaders, they are bloggers, they are brilliant creators and thinkers and they have extensive social networks.”

Employees are provided with a tool called Jobvite that allows them to reach out to their network and share Kobo’s open positions along with information about working for the company.

“It’s been so successful that I’ve moved from almost an entire support on external recruiting firms to over half of our positions being filled through referrals,” says Ricci.

Kobo doesn’t use job boards at all and just four per cent of its last 110 hires came from external recruiting agencies, she says.

“It’s an extremely cost-effective model and it allows us to save a lot of money on recruiting and put it back into our employee experience.”

Going forward, Kobo may be able to use the activity reports from Ripple to gauge employee engagement, says Ricci. The company is also relaunching its website, which may include a Twitter feed of all employee tweets.

But that could be a little riskier, she says, and the company is currently evaluating whether it should instead have certain employee ambassadors writing the tweets.

“Or do we really want to exemplify the personality of the organization and why hide it?” says Ricci. “I can pull up right now the Twitter feeds of most people in our organization and I’d be comfortable to put anything up there right now.”

Having tweets come straight from employees amplifies Kobo’s personality, she says.

“And if it helps filter out someone that may feel like that’s just not the culture for them, then it’s doing its job as well.”

But seeing how little is devoted to social media at conferences, Ricci says she doesn’t understand why more people aren’t using it, especially when it’s practically free.

“There is a small group and it still surprises me because… I think it’s a no-brainer. But I also understand that it takes a certain type of thinking, it takes a certain type of breeding in HR.”

“A lot of it has to do with risk, there’s a lot of fear, a lot of the unknown. You have to have really good support from your leadership as well as be prepared for the extraordinary and not so extraordinary that can come out of social (media).”

Craig Wilson
Vice-president, human resources
Ocean Nutrition Canada
Dartmouth, N.S.

Ocean Nutrition Canada is a supplier of Omega-3 EPA/DHA ingredients with more than 300 employees

Ocean Nutrition Canada (ONC) may be a newcomer to social media but it’s already seeing results from its presence on sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and the Canadian bio-economy job site, PetriDish, according to Craig Wilson, vice-president of human resources.

The company’s motivation for getting involved in social media was threefold: raise awareness of Omega-3s in a way that allows ONC to talk about itself; translate that awareness into an employee brand that drives top-quality talent to its website; and seek out the best potential employees anywhere in the world.

“The benefit of social media is that we can take our message directly to the candidate,” says Wilson. “When you run an advertisement, you have to wait and see.”

ONC is a leader in Omega-3 research and development with a global workforce that has a high level of technical sophistication, he says. Finding top talent requires equally savvy knowledge.

“Great people are not looking for jobs,” says Wilson. “With social media, we can go into places where these people hang out.”

Social media not only makes that easier, it also saves money on recruitment. ONC recruits globally which is traditionally a slow and expensive process.

“With social media, we can cover a broad geography, be industry- and skill-specific and process much of it electronically. We’re able to compress a lot in the front end,” he says.

At the start of this year, ONC introduced an HR “dashboard” that tracks the number of days a job vacancy is open. Since the department revved up its social media strategy, those jobs are filled much more quickly, says Wilson.

About one-half of all new hires, especially in the scientific field, now come through social media contacts, he says. In a company that has grown from four employees in 1997 to more than 300 today, streamlining recruitment and building an employee brand are key to ONC’s future.

“We’re finding candidates with a closer fit to our needs,” says Wilson. “And candidates that apply now also have a wider range of knowledge about us. This is a new and emerging HR strategy as we support business growth.”

But Wilson offers a few pieces of advice for other HR practitioners. Among them, once the decision is made to use social media, a company has to be committed to it.

“You can’t just dabble in it,” he says, which ties to his second piece of advice: Resource according to the social media of choice. ONC hasn’t expanded to Twitter because it doesn’t have the staff to monitor and respond in a timely way — yet.

“Some social media choices are more labour-intensive,” says Wilson.

“For now, LinkedIn is something we can mine (for talent) and Facebook is about creating conversations and finding referrals. We want to get really good at a few things before we do all things.”

Since most sites are either free or relatively inexpensive, there are few barriers to entry — but ONC is keenly aware of the cost of having staff manage social media.

“You have to make sure you don’t send out a message if you can’t respond to the message,” he says.

It’s also important the HR department shares social media responsibility with other departments, says Wilson. The initiative at ONC started at the executive level.

“We had very strong support from the top,” he says. “We rely a lot on the experts in marketing, too.”

And Wilson stresses the importance of setting metrics and investigating the best practices of other companies.

“We want to limit the use of social media to specific assigned functions,” he says, adding that one of the challenges of social media is responding to its rapid changes.

ONC is currently working on a social media policy as it looks to expand its presence online.

The company expects social media to be the cornerstone of its branding and recruitment, says Wilson.

Lisa Castle
Associate vice-president, human resources
University of British Columbia (UBC)

UBC is home to more than 40,000 students and 9,000 faculty and staff

The University of British Columbia (UBC) is one of those “big, complicated places where being heard is a challenge,” according to Lisa Castle, associate vice-president of human resources, but social media is giving its HR department a voice.

The university’s HR department forayed into social media in the fall of 2009 with a blog and Twitter feed as a means to not only push information out but stimulate conversations and hear back from employees.

“It’s very difficult to do that with an all-staff email,” she says. “Social media is less static and more interactive. Employees want the opportunity to provide feedback.”

The Twitter feed is used for everything from relaying new benefit information and job postings to letting staff and students know about opportunities, such as UBC’s Leap for Change, an international learning project. One blog has grown into multiple blogs focused on HR updates, healthy workplaces and the experiences of those overseas, says Castle.

Responsibility for filtering posts or tweets falls to one HR staff member with social media expertise. She is also responsible for training employees on social media etiquette and how to use it effectively. That role has grown to occupy almost three-quarters of her time because when she’s not posting, she’s studying the website’s Google analytics to determine what’s working and what’s not, says Castle.

It has been important to have a single HR voice and filter.

“There are lots of uses for social media,” she says. “But you have to be careful not to make it another dumping ground for information. It’s not just about what you push out but what people want to have conversations about. We tend not to tweet just because we have the ability to.”

Before entering the world of social media, the HR department had a few considerations: Would every job be posted on Twitter? And how would the HR department handle negative feedback, especially in such a public forum?

“We were prepared for people to come back and be critical,” she says. “There’s a tension between transparency and information out there that could affect your reputation. Our decision was to land on the side of transparency and deal with any fallout from it.”

At a university — a bastion of free thinking — it was especially important the HR department trust people to use social media responsibly and to “deal with the outliers as outliers.” So far, there have been no problems, only benefits, she says, and social media has actually improved messaging to employees and students.

“It’s an opportunity outside of formal channels to hear their experiences and expectations,” says Castle. “There are no filters, no managers, no associations and no unions. They’re telling us directly about their day-to-day experience.”

Social media, especially Twitter with its 140-character limit, is also forcing HR to be more concise with its message.

“We’re forced to think more about what we want the audience to do with the information,” she says, adding there’s also an immediacy to social media that allows the department to react more quickly to employee feedback.

Sue Simone
Senior vice-president, human resources
CIBC Mellon

The Toronto-based asset servicing provider has 1,000 employees

CIBC Mellon’s HR department is focused on recruiting and building a strong talent pipeline, according to Sue Simone, senior vice-president of HR in Toronto. And social media has recently become a part of that.

“Social media was new to us and we took a leap of faith — as in business, it is important to adapt to the changing environment and leverage technology to achieve results,” she says.

The company recently ventured into Twitter and LinkedIn.

“Deciding to use LinkedIn was a no-brainer — it’s a recognized forum and is an extensive network, filled with professionals from around the world. It can be very effective.”

And Twitter is an effective way for a recruiter to gain somewhat of an edge over the competition, says Simone.

“I remember tweeting our first job — how excited we were getting our first tweets and how many followers our job had reached.”

CIBC Mellon is exploring social media’s potential in business on a number of fronts. For example, its marketing group is actively promoting the company’s leadership position via the same channels.

“Raising our profile as market leader and as a good corporate citizen is also great for our recruitment efforts,” she says. “We know that there’s a lot more that we can do and the use of social media in recruiting is just the beginning.”

Using social media provides an opportunity to reach diverse audiences, such as alumni, new graduates, flexible workers or job market business professionals who are new to the market, says Simone.

“Social media use is pervasive among a number of our recruitment targets. Jobseekers today are tech-savvy and they expect that any company they are looking at joining will have a presence on and a relationship with social media.”

Leveraging social media such as LinkedIn is an effective way of tapping into networks of business professionals — both active jobseekers and passive candidates, says Simone.

“It’s a great way to gain insight into a person’s personal brand and their qualifications. It’s also a low-cost solution to recruiting, employer brand visibility and establishing a leading-edge image for the brand.”

LinkedIn and Twitter have provided CIBC Mellon with an opportunity to learn more about candidates above and beyond what’s on a resumé.

“We are now able to connect and engage with candidates by learning more about their accomplishments, interests, networks and volunteer work, to name a few examples,” she says.

Social media has exploded into the business arena and proven effective in several industries and it can be a powerful tool to engage and connect with candidates, clients and customers, says Simone. However, its fast pace is an ongoing challenge for CIBC Mellon, which works to ensure its information continues to be relevant and useful.

“To address this challenge, our recruitment, communication and marketing teams are active users and work collaboratively to ensure the information is both relevant and current,” she says.

The management of information and ensuring it aligns with the organization’s practices are always top-of-mind, says Simone.

“Social media is a fast-moving space where the conversation about best practices for recruitment and employee engagement continues to evolve. We are excited to be a part of this technology shift.”

Social networking sites are here to stay and will become increasingly critical moving forward, she says.

“For businesses, they are proving to be an effective means of finding candidates and establishing an online brand. For jobseekers, they are an effective means of staying in touch with colleagues and finding a new job.”

Len Posyniak
Vice-president, human resources

The auto insurance corporation is a provincial Crown corporation with 5,400 employees
based in North Vancouver, B.C.

As part of a major rebranding directed both at customers and employees, ICBC has been using social media quite regularly for a couple of years — it’s an expanding part of the business, according to Len Posyniak, Vancouver-based vice-president of HR. That means the corporation has a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google AdWords to promote different searches it has underway.

“Every morning, we’re using Twitter to promote any positions that we’re having difficulty filling and, at the same time, we’re promoting the insurance corporation as an employer,” he says. “That’s where our new candidates are going to be coming from, so we’re basically going where the talent is looking. And it’s very inexpensive to us so it’s a good way of getting our message out there. It’s as much about the jobs as it is the general employee experience and the company itself.”

While generations X and Y are the obvious targets, some sites such as LinkedIn are fairly trans-generational, says Posyniak.

“If I’m on LinkedIn, others must be as well.”

And the new space has improved recruiting efforts.

“In the last several years, our time to hire is down,” he says. “There’s always the one or two roles, highly specialized roles that, like other employers, we have a little difficulty with. But this certainly improves our exposure out there.”

ICBC’s customers are in the social media world, so the company needs to be there as well, says Posyniak, such as using Twitter to deal with customer complaints or reputation issues.

“Immediacy and authenticity are things we can achieve by using social media.”

An unexpected outcome of the Twitter account is the compliments received about customer-facing staff. After finding out who the employee is, an internal recognition system at ICBC sends the employee and her manager an ecard. This has proven to be a huge morale boost to employees and helped with the company’s objective to improve the employee experience, says Posyniak.

Since factual inaccuracies about the company can move pretty quickly, one of the returns from investing in social media is being able to correct any misconceptions.

“I don’t know if there’s a particular dollar return on it but I do know that it’s enormously labour-saving,” he says.

And since the entry price for social media at the beginning was so small, there wasn’t much of a need for a business case to convince the C-suite, says Posyniak.

“It’s a resourcing element — it’s not front-of-mind for an insurance company. So explaining to people how social media’s going to fit with the other things we traditionally do often just isn’t an easy proposition,” he says. “As an executive of the company, I have to also tell you I needed to be persuaded we needed to move into these areas as well but, for the price and the exposure and the immediacy, it’s a good proposition.”

However, caution is required when it comes to social media initiatives by ICBC, both as an insurance company and a Crown corporation. So the company has a formal policy around the issue and employees are reminded about the rules regularly.

“We’ve been rather careful about this,” says Posyniak. “Privacy is a huge, huge issue with us, so obviously custom information, company results, proprietary interests, commercial ideas that we have — none of that are we willing to share.”

Inwardly facing, ICBC is doing quite a bit on its intranet site as part of a major redevelopment, he says. That includes monthly blogs for executives to communicate on the company’s mission and objectives, with an interactive feature for employees.

“In fact, now anything that goes up on our site in terms of news or announcements, employees are able to comment on. In the future, we’ll be able to set up different blogs for people and shared sites for people working on particular projects and that kind of thing. So that’s expanded for us quite a bit in the last little while.”

The amount of feedback varies by topic but items closer to home get more pickup, he says. Social media allows people to comment and criticize about commercial matters across the country.

“All that’s very welcome because we’re trying to build a bit more of an inclusive environment around here so this is just a device to do that,” he says.

“We want people to be able to speak across the company and through levels of the management structure. It’s a great device for bringing a bit more egalitarianism and inclusiveness to the company.”

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