On the long-haul flight back to London from the US Society for Human Resource Management convention in San Diego yesterday, one issue kept gnawing away at me as I mentally digested the experiences of a few days spent on the Pacific coast of California with 11,000 human resources professionals. As the cabin lights dimmed, I found myself thinking about whether social media - Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on - represent a threat or an opportunity for employers.
Though it was far from the main topic of the formal convention, the issue came up in a dramatic fashion during a session on social media, entitled Social Network Sites: Can You Always Trust What You See, presented by Jason B Morris, president and COO of EmployeeScreenIQ, and attended by HR consultant and blogger Mark Stelzner, who generated an engaging Twitter stream during the session.
I wasn't at this particular session, so I can't comment on the speaker's arguments, but from elsewhere in the convention I did follow Mark's increasingly irritated Twitter remarks as the session progressed, of which I have pasted an example below:
Now I like Mark's blog and I follow him on Twitter and, as a social media enthusiast, I found myself naturally inclined to sympathise with his annoyance at the speaker's apparent focus on the risks of social media for employers, without apparently mentioning the benefits. Here's another example:
Mark's tweets from the session generated a flurry of social media conversation, from people attending the event and from those tuning in from afar via social media. One of the first to weigh in was Trish McFarlane, HR practitioner and author of the always readable HR Ringleader blog. Trish says:
Because this is not a fad that is going away. It's the NEW media and it is how this generation is starting to do business. Consumers use social media to gain information on your company, your products and your employees. Ultimately, they are giving you free advertising if you're good and they are sharing with the world when your customer service is poor.
Are there risks with using Web 2.0? Absolutely and those can be managed. They are the same risks that you have when you put a telephone in your employee's hand or assign an e-mail address to them and ask them to represent you in that way. Employees are loose cannons, right? They could just say anything. Or not.
The bottom line is that employees are adults. If you treat them like they are and set the expectations of what "proper" communication looks like for your company regardless of the medium used, you'll be just fine. Stop acting like an ostrich with your head under ground. If you don't, you will soon find that your business has been passed by and all you wound up with is a mouth full of sand.
In a similar vein, recruiter and blogger Jennifer McClure (@cincyrecruiter on Twitter), says she is shocked "when a session speaker asks about how many organizations block access to social media/social networks that over half of the attendees in the room raise their hands". She says:
After spending my first full day at the conference attending sessions related to employee engagement, recruiting, candidate experience and employment branding, I'm not only shocked and surprised, I'm disappointed. Regardless of how effective the session leaders were at providing insights or examples of how to utilize social media/social networks in these critical aspects of talent management, the majority of the questions and concerns raised by the participants in the sessions continue to be a about three things - negative comments, "unauthorized " employee activity and creating policies to prevent both.
And she goes on to say:
Why do we forget that we've been through this before? Remember when computers were introduced to the workplace? Or email? How about cell phones? These tools would be considered essential communication devices for most any employee in an organization today, yet all were met by initial resistance. Now, they've become commonplace (and essential) tools used every day to help move businesses forward. At some point in time, we stopped asking about how to keep our people from using them and started figuring out how to integrate them into our work cultures as tools used for the greater good.
One tweet, retweeted by Punk Rock HR blogger Laurie Ruettimann (@lruettimann on Twitter), seemed to sum up the approach of HR's social media cheerleaders:
This is Laurie's employee handbook in full:
1. Don't be an asshole. 2. Don't divert attention away from the mission and vision of the organization. 3. Don't cause problems that are bigger than the problem we're trying to solve. 4. If you don't like it, leave.
As I sat on my plane somewhere over Canada, I began to realise that while I fully shared the sentiments of HR's social media vanguard, especially their enthusiasm for the potential of social media, I wasn't happy with some of the arguments. I had plenty of time on my hands, so I managed to distil my misgivings into two headings:
1. Social media are qualitatively different from other forms of personal communication
I remember years ago, when I was a student, having an argument with an annoyingly disputatious smartarse, who argued that there was no qualitative difference between a bow and arrow and a thermo-nuclear bomb. They were both just weapons and the difference was of quantity not quality, he claimed. I didn't buy that then and I don't buy it now.
There comes a point when differences of quantity (in that case, destructive potential) become differences of quality. Weapons of mass destruction are qualitatively different from battlefield weapons and are rightly recognised as such under international law.
It seems to me that the same argument applies to social media as compared to other forms of personal communication - whether telephones, email ... or frickin' carrier pigeon. I can send an email to one person or a longer CC list and I can have a telephone conversation or conference call and, realistically, at most I am normally conversing with a few people, perhaps 10s of people, each time. Importantly I will normally know who all those people are and may have a reasonable expectation that the contents of the conversation will remain private or semi-private.
Now if I post a status update on Twitter, this is potentially visible to six billion internet users worldwide. Six billion. (I'm not claiming that many personal followers yet, though - remember that Twitter updates can be visible to all internet users depending on personal settings.)
This is the genuinely awesome power of social media and the internet. With real time search, I can post something about my employer and see it returned at the top of search results in seconds and potentially viewed by ...thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands if it were newsworthy/interesting/salacious/controversial enough.
The scale of this communications revolution is immense and we are only just beginning to work through the implications. But one thing is for sure, it is different - qualitatively different - from other forms of personal communication such as the telephone, email, paper and face to face.
In practice social media conversations and relationships tend to coalesce around relatively small groups with common interests, but we not should let that blind us to the sheer immensity of the broadcasting potential inherent in the technologies.
I think people who are not involved in social media can sometimes grasp this better than those of us who are, because our perspective may be clouded by the day-to-day reality of our smallish networks. It feels like we are are talking with a few friends and acquaintances and we forget that the content of these conversations is being indexed and saved for all time, often in a format that is easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
But if we are trying to convince CEOs, HRDs, heads of corporate communications and the like that their organisations should embrace social media, I believe we need to start by fully acknowledging that these technologies are different - genuinely, deeply, truly, qualitatively different from what has gone before. In a way we are talking about a difference on the same scale as that between a bow and arrow and a nuclear bomb. (I accept the analogy is not great, because unlike nuclear weapons social media have tremendous creative potential.)
So it is not going to be enough to say to business leaders: "Come on in, just trust your employees, now strip off and jump right into social media, the water's lovely." It is quite understandable and legitimate for employers still to be at the toe-dipping stage. Let's not exaggerate the extent to which most businesses are under an immediate competitive threat from web savvy, social media friendly competitors. Some are, many are not.
2. Because social media are different, employers require specific policies and procedures
Thanks for staying with me this far (somewhere over Greenland). My second conclusion flowed from the first. Once I'd clarified that social media really are a new form of mass communication (worldwide multimedia broadcasting) open to all employees - and hence A Very Big Deal for employers - it followed that they merit significant, serious and thoughtful attention from all parts of the business, including HR.
It is unlikely that HR policies developed before the advent of social media, or drafted without taking social media into account, will be completely fit for purpose. It may be that they are insufficiently protective - if they fail to remind employees of their responsibilities to protect confidentiality and the employer's reputation in social media as elsewhere, for example. But it may also be that they are too restrictive, cutting off opportunities for the employer to enhance customer service and its reputation by, for example, continuing with an out-of-date blanket ban on the use of social media in the workplace.
There is much to be said for the argument that appropriate social media use by employees is mostly common sense and that employees, if trusted, will mostly do the right thing. I have a generally optimistic view of human nature and I believe this to be true. But "mostly" is never enough in well-led and managed organisations. We don't tend to write our policies and procedures to cover the "mostly" situations: we draft them to cover the occasional, potentially nasty and damaging, brand-undermining, litigation-inducing exceptions - and to mitigate the risks.
This is just another example of a situation where human resources professionals need to focus on the exception as well as the rule - because of the potential scale of the risks to the organisation and its reputation as well as the potential upside of getting it right.
So in the end I decided that I shouldn't despair if a hall of HR professionals in San Diego focus on the risks to their organisations from social media. If they do this, they are just doing their job. It would be the same in the UK as it was in California - perhaps even more so. The task of social media advocates like myself is not to pretend that these risks don't exist but to balance these legitimate concerns with advocacy of the potential upside of organisations embracing social media.
As we started our descent to Heathrow I noticed that my in-flight headphones were still untouched in their plastic wrapping and my unopened complimentary copy of the Daily Mail was still squashed behind the BA magazine at the back of the seat in front. Had I really spent the entire journey thinking about social media and HR? And were all those thoughts triggered by a series of tweets from someone I didn't actually meet, from a session that I didn't physically attend, enhanced by blog posts from other people who weren't there either? Made me wonder why I went to California. (Actually, no it didn't. I absolutely loved going to California.) Such is the power of social media.
Full disclosure: As editor of a UK-based subscription web service for HR professionals, focusing on legal compliance as well as good practice and benchmarking, I have an interest in promoting the use of legally compliant policies and procedures.