Afraid of Your Employees Using Social Media? Prepare for Missed Opportunities

Make no mistake—its proliferation as a marketing and customer management tool has not erased corporate fear about how social media is being used by employees.

Whether the worry focuses on public relations nightmares from ill-advised Tweets, image disasters from employee social lives being exposed or the mere time-wasting consequences of allowing staff to use Facebook at the office, the skepticism is sweeping as employers ask whether the benefits of greater corporate social media participation justify the risks.

Social media advocates might be seething over the possibility that the aforementioned concerns are enough to stall the continued growth of the online communication, but it is not as if the questions come without any justification. From the infamous anti-Detroit Tweet on an official Chrysler account to the WWE announcer’s use of a gay slur and many incidents in between, employee Tweets have a clear history of garnering negative attention.

And, from a productivity standpoint, late-night comedians like Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon have often poked fun at the silly notion that social networks will amount to anything but time wasters at the office.


The cause for concern is not simply anecdotal. A July 2011 study by the Proskauer International Labor and Employment Group finds that 43% of the 120 multinational employers it surveyed reported "employee misuse" of social networks. Amid the same study’s finding that 76% of employers use social media for business and networking purposes, with the participation trend pointing upward, the evidence of employee misconduct is not a drop-in-the-bucket issue.

As social media continues to become an integral part of corporate strategy, so too does the need to overcome the challenge of keeping employee communication in line with the company’s vision.

But while the challenge of managing employee communication is on the radar for many organizations, agreement on the appropriate means of overcoming the challenge is much less universal. Retroactive disciplinary measures for employee misconduct over social media have made sense in 33% of surveyed organizations, while 29% take the proactive step of blocking social media access at the office.

Neither solution, however, addresses the issue of employee communications head-on; neither opens the door to a collaborative partnership that assures the social media intentions of the business and employees are aligned.

For as rhetorically appealing as that "collaborative partnership" might be, it, too, has struggled to gain universal traction. The Proskauer study finds that corporate social media policies, which, if anything, at least represent a step in getting the employer and employee on the same page, exist in only 55% of multinational businesses.

For businesses at large, Boston University professor Kabrina Chang puts the number at only 15%.

Though there are indeed some critics of the much-heralded "social media policy," it is not as if there is widespread opposition to the idea of corporate executives working with employees to establish the goals and ground rules for social communication. The data on misconduct reveals a significant disconnect between what employees do on social media and what the company wants them to do, and if the only answer to that disconnect is a ban, the employer is, potentially needlessly, cutting itself off from the benefits of an open social media strategy.

With social media providing direct, inexpensive pathways between buyer and seller, barriers to entry are being destroyed, and competitors have more opportunities to poach customers. Without adopting a social media strategy of their own, whether for defensive or offensive purposes, companies are risking losing the engagement of their audience. They are also missing out on opportunities to improve brand perception and cultivate new buyers.

The benefits do not simply extend to branding and customer interaction. While a typical "sell" for a social media strategy is to maintain or enhance your organization’s ability to engage customers as their preferred channels and expectations of service change, employers are also missing out on significant employee insights with wishy-washy social media commitments.

A third of businesses have disciplined employees for misusing social networks and 29% ban employee access outright, but only 27% actively monitor employee use of social networks. Forget the struggle to monitor customer feedback—this data reveals that 73% of employers do not have a complete picture, if a picture at all, of how their employees are publicly displaying the brand.

Not every employer wants to be "Big Brother"—some corporate cultures, in fact, promise the opposite mentality—but for a problem that seems widespread enough to stall the growth of a buzzworthy, high-potential marketing movement, the statistical disconnect is surprising: not even every employer with a negative social media experience monitors what its employees say via online networks.

The value of understanding employees’ social communication exists not only insofar as it keeps the employer in control of customer-facing dialogue. When properly monitored, it can also provide tremendous insight into the general conduct of employees.

While her logic presumes a significantly-higher frequency of social media monitoring than is shown to exist, Akron University professor Carolyn Anderson’s assertion that social media leads to "people lying less at work" has solid grounding in logic.

Speaking to Business News Daily, Anderson contends that social media removes the wall between an employee’s private life and professional life and creates more accountability for his actions and comments.

"People are lying less at work — because lies are so exposed today," explains Anderson. "Whatever you say on Facebook is being read by your company and you could be fired…Some employers check Facebook posts every day. With social media, you can't get away with much at all."

And sweepingly-validated or not, Anderson’s assertion speaks to a valuable message for employers and social media.

Regardless of whether employer fear about social media is justified, employees are going to communicate over social networks. Online communication has become a societal fixture, and as long as that remains the case, employees, who are almost always seen as brand ambassadors, are going to be sharing thoughts and personal details with the masses.

Should an employer assume that banning social media from the workplace makes this problem go away? Will ignoring it work any better?

Or, should the employer collaborate with its staff to uncover the most productive, most valuable professional uses of social media?