Yes, social media are a real threat to employers

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:

RobinSchooling: I think @Stelzner is going to burst a blood vessel in this session he’s attending #shrm10
about 2 days ago
stelzner: Each case he presents is an example of moronic behavior. Same is true via phone, in person or via frickin’ carrier pigeon. #shrm10
about 2 days ago

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:

stelzner: Advocating blockage of sites in soc media policy so co’s can protect themselves. Yes… protect yourself from progress. #SHRM10
about 2 days ago

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:

lruettimann: RT @kathyoreilly: Your social media policy is simple, it’s called your employee handbook – @lruettimann #monsterlive |credited to @kris_dunn
about a day ago

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.

And yet…

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.

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17 Responses to Yes, social media are a real threat to employers

  1. Jon Ingham 1 July 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    I’m not quite sure I’ve understood your point here David. Social media is qualitatively different, sure. That’s why it’s web 2.0 not web 1.1. And I think that’s the reason for Mark’s frustration too. If it was just 1.1, just a matter of quantitative change, it’d be easier to understand companies that adopt and wait and see approach. And it’s be much harder to get all emotional about it too. But it’s not. It is a qualitatively different opportunity. And that’s why it’s so puzzling that many companies are ignoring it. And why there are some people who are passionate about changing their perspectives.

  2. David Shepherd
    David Shepherd 1 July 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    @jon My point is that I can’t agree that the issues involved in employee use of social media are identical to those involved in other forms of personal communication, such as email, telephones etc. Of course, many of the issues are the same, but social media are different in important ways and raise different issues which need to be addressed specifically. That’s why I don’t think it is helpful to say that moronic employees will be moronic whether they do it by email or carrier pigeon or social media. A moronic employee posting a damaging or libellous video viewable in seconds by millions represents a different order of challenge to one sending an ill-advised email let alone a hand-written note. I think employers and HR professionals are right to be concerned about the reputational and legal risks to businesses posed by employee use of social media. These risks are real; they have not been invented by lawyers out to scare people. Ultimately advocates of social media in the workplace will need to acknowledge and answer employers’ legitimate concerns to get a hearing on the potential benefits.

  3. Kari Quaas 1 July 2010 at 11:14 pm #


    This was a very thoughtful post and I appreciate the fact that you spent your flight home to write it. Social media IS a big deal for many employers, but I do hope that they learn from their peers who are giving it a whirl and see how it CAN be a beneficial way to communicate with employees, customers and potentials of either category. I don’t think it warrants the complete fear that seemed to be expressed in that session (that I also didn’t attend, but followed Mark’s tweets), but certainly a good HR review and best practices should be discussed.



  4. David Shepherd
    David Shepherd 1 July 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    @Kari – Thanks for your comment Kari, I think one way to calm people’s fears would be to acknowledge the genuine risks but talk about how to mitigate those risks as well as the benefits of social media engagement. And of course there are risks to employers from not engaging. I didn’t write the post on the plane, by the way, I wrote it today back home in London – I was just thinking about it for most of the plane ride. (I also read a few chapters of Great Expectations on my iPad, but that’s another story.)

  5. Matt Alder 2 July 2010 at 12:12 am #

    A really interesting article David. It’s good to see some proper pragmatism emerging out from the cheer leading, truisms and generalizations that can cloud the real issues.

    I think there is another very important point to consider though. By the sounds of it the speaker at the session (which I wasn’t in held during the conference I wasn’t at!) was working from the assumption that employers actually have a choice in all this. Ultimately they don’t. It may take time to affect every company but this a fundamental shift in channels of communication that is growing at a previously unprecedented rate. It will be an issue for every single company and organization at some point and choosing to ignore it won’t make it go away. Home broadband growth and the smart phone revolution means that blocking access at work is going to have no effect on employee usage whatsoever. Far better for employers to be proactive and face up to the some of the challenges you identify now rather than bury their heads in the sand and create much bigger issues for themselves in the future

  6. Mark Stelzner 2 July 2010 at 1:15 am #

    A very interesting post David, thank you.

    Let me clarify one point – my frustration lies not in the fact that the well-spoken, amusing Mr. Morris presented the pitfalls of new media strategies and the inherent legal risks that may follow. Instead, I was frustrated by what appeared to be a one-sided conversation that explicitly drove attendees to the sole conclusion that Mr. Morris’ firm should be hired to protect them from this harbinger of doom.

    I agree with you that the tools are different and that risks need to be assessed. But I also stick by the point that we’re really talking about common sense. When we were given office phones, did you call up your best friend and share company IP? When we were given email, did you message a client and say something inappropriate? When we were given the internet, did you surf porn sites all day long? If you did, you exposed yourself and your firm to the same level of risk as today. However, what’s different is speed and change, both of which mandate a higher level of continuous education.

    Thanks for stimulating an interesting conversation!

  7. Jennifer McClure 2 July 2010 at 3:45 am #

    I really enjoyed your post David and wish that I could have used my red-eye

    flight across the US nearly as productively. :) Your point is well taken regarding the difference in reach from an using the cell phone, email, etc. versus social media. My point in bringing those tools into the conversation is that, as HR & business professionals, we’ve had to figure out how to integrate those tools into our businesses to be used in a (mostly) productive way. We couldn’t avoid them or ban the for long. I worked in HR when each of those tools crept into the workplace and spent many hours of my time in meetings or writing policies trying to figure out how to control these “new” communication devices. Eventually, they worked their way into the workplace and we dealt with the small percentage who used them inappropriately (as will always be the case) versus banning for all.

    I think we need to start figuring out how to integrate social media as well. Larger reach not only means larger potential for damage, it also means larger potential for good. I prefer to focus on how to create positive business benefits and train, coach, provide examples of effective use. We’ll still have to deal with some who use it inappropriately, but if we’ve built up goodwill, Fans and ambassadors for our companies and brands as a result of effective participation, then it should most often outweigh any potential harmful effects.

    I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet at this year’s conference! Hopefully, we can do so some time in the future!

  8. margo rose 2 July 2010 at 5:17 am #

    Jessica: Great points here. What I loved most about your posts through out the conference, and now on the way home is that you thought deeply, and employed true critical thinking skills in how you processed, discussed and disseminated the information you put forth. I followed the #SHRM10 tweets, and posts like a hawk. I read most of them, and liked a few of them, a lot. Not all of them were quite as articulate as what you discuss here, but again, not everyone has the capacity, and ability to communicate with the written word the way you do,

    In the echo chamber, we know social media isn’t a fad. We know that either you are on reading the menu, or on the menu. The early adopters know this, the late adopters are learning this. The bottom line is this. Do you want to be with the times, or behind the times. We talk amongst ourselves. What we not the ones who need convincing. We get it. We read blogs, we write blogs, we are using multiple digital platforms.

    Recently, I had lunch with Steve Browne. He said that 78% of HR Pros in Cincinnati are not even on twitter. How many of them know or care? That’s a more interesting question. The most serious four letter word in our online language is not an expletive. It is FEAR. Once businesses overcome their fear–they can start rolling up their sleeves, and get down to the real business of harnessing the power of new media.

    Your friend,

    Margo Rose

  9. Tammy Colson 2 July 2010 at 5:19 am #

    I understand the need to put policy in place and be aware of the risks of using SM in a business environment. However…

    our customers are all using SM in one form or another. If NOTHING else, we need to be listening. Think: United Breaks Guitars viral video.

    Our employees are using SM as well, and short of telling them that they can’t (and well, that’s just not reasonable) we, as executives, need to put some common sense guidelines in place to manage the expectations of usage. Frank Zupan (@frankzupan) made an excellent comment tonight.
    “SM is a conversation. If you want to control it, buy more duct tape.”

    We cannot prevent people from complaining about our companies (and really, that’s what we are worried about) but we can manage those complaints effectively, and use good management techniques to make sure we aren’t doing things that will solicit viral complaints. Things only become widespread when many people agree with them. And if that many people agree, perhaps we have stepped in it with a particular decision.

    Just something to think about.

  10. Martin Couzins 2 July 2010 at 9:09 am #

    But employers will find it hard to innovate and use social media tools to their benefit if their approach is driven by fear and ignorance.

    In order to overcome this employers will have to make some space to try out these new tools and that means trusting their employees to do so.

    Key to this is an understanding (and experience) of using these tools by the functions you mention – HR and comms.

    I agree that these tools have changed the face of the web and I think it is worth pointing out that many, many employees are active in social networks already – either inside or outside of the workplace.

    With my glass half full perspective, I would hope organisations explore how social media tools can provide new ways of engaging with their own people and customers too. Many are already making a real success.

    We always remember the bad publicity, so employers will be cautious. Maybe we also need to get better at sharing the success stories – using the power of the 6bn – so employers can feel more confident.

  11. TheHRD 2 July 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    It may just be me being dense but one of the biggest factors that seems to be missing here is the use of mobile technology to access social media sites. You can block what you like as a company or have whatever policy you like on usage, but it doesn’t stop someone videoing, photographing and transmitting messages at the speed of light (well nearly). Look at the take up of the iPhone, mobile internet access is here and is not going away.

    I have two very distinct hats on here. In my real life our approach is to educate staff on social media and to make sure that they understand how to use it effectively. We operate in house training courses and have free access to all sites. We have a policy that outlines acceptable usage – essentially anything that is not illegal, defamatory or just down right out of order.

    With my other hat on here as a relatively anonymous blogger, I could probably been seen as a “problem child” for any organisation. But there is nothing that could be done at work that would dissuade me from continuing (particularly as I write the policies and procedures on acceptable usage….!)

  12. kellybriefworld 2 July 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Numerous corporate IT departments are asking themselves whether or not to block social media (Enterprise 2.0) applications like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc. What they often don’t realize is that they can safely enable these applications through the use of smart policies. Smart policies can enable businesses to take advantage of the benefits of these powerful platforms, while risky or counterproductive features can be selectively blocked. Palo Alto Networks has put together a great whitepaper to help you understand how this new firewall technology works. It’s called “To Block or Not. Is That the Question?” and you can find it here: Let me know what you think…

  13. Trish McFarlane 2 July 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    David, I want to thank you for quoting part of my post in yours. It’s clear that this is a topic you have spent a great deal of time pondering and you have some very relevant points. I do think that you took my quote out of context though for your readers.

    Yes, I use social media in my professional life. And yes, I am certainly one of the early adopters from a HR standpoint. But, the POINT of my post was this: If you, as an organization, are not embracing social media just a little, YOU WILL LOSE COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE. Period.

    I do not believe it is about writing policy but about telling employees how you expect them to communicate about your company AT ALL TIMES regardless if it’s via phone, e-mail, in person, etc. It doesn’t mean those are all the same. Some reach more than others. However, if I am an employee and I message even one person a negative message and it gets out, I could lose my job. That is no different than a tweet or FB post. It ONLY takes one person to see it to make it actionable.

    Like Martin Cousins, I’m a glass half full person. People already do this on their phones. I’d rather organizations focus their effort on teaching employees how to communicate properly rather than on banning anything.

    Thanks for starting a lively debate. :-)

  14. David Shepherd
    David Shepherd 3 July 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    @Matt @TheHRD – Thank you both for raising the issue of smart phones. You really got me thinking and I have written another post on that issue.

  15. David Shepherd
    David Shepherd 3 July 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    @Mark – Thank you for your comment and for your always interesting tweets and blog posts. Sounds like you had yet another reason to be annoyed with this speaker – plugging his own firm’s services. That would have annoyed me too if I had been there. If you’re a speaker at an event like #shrm10 just focus on giving a great presentation, don’t plug your firm. People can see your name. If you’re good they’ll seek you out. On the comparison with other forms of communication, I think it is valid but there is that additional element with social media of unintended consequences, inadvertently or recklessly posting confidential or sensitive information and the potential size of the audience that does make it special and require extra attention. I agree that common sense is key, but there is an issue of social media literacy and a need for employers to educate their people in what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in social media communication.

    @Jennifer – I do think you’re right to focus on the positive and the potential for good coming out of social media, and I agree there is an analogy with other innovations. On the other hand, I think that employers and HR professionals do have legitimate misgivings and concerns which we need to address and help them overcome.

    @Trish and @Martin – I accept that the post does come across as a bit glass-half-empty. I can’t even say its a cultural difference between Americans and Brits, because Martin’s English and takes glass-half-full view. My defence is that I was being one-sided as a corrective rather than expressing my rounded view, which is that, like both of you, I am a social networking enthusiast.

    @Tammy – Yes, I completely agree. There’s no option for business leaders to shut their eyes and hope that social media will go away. There is a real compulsion to engage.

  16. Anne 5 July 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    Social Media offer businesses a venue to make their presence known and market their brand/products. They also provide a way for you to create and maintain a connection with your audience/market/fans. Clearly, Social Media can be a very useful tool in boosting your business – when used properly and in the right context. using media sites though, puts your network security and your privacy at risk – causing problems for your IT department.
    To counter these risks, check out:

  17. Patti Breckenridge 6 July 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    Thank you ALL for creating such a stimulating conversation. This is what HR networking is all about!

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