HR's Social Networking Troubles
Though a new survey shows HR executives fear social media's impact on productivity, some consultants say embracing the online platform can build trust among employees and improve collaboration.
By Kecia Bal
The two prevailing reasons companies blocked access to social-media websites in the past year were security threats (77 percent) and decreased productivity for employees (67 percent), according to the responses of 158 human resource managers and executives in a recent survey.
But rather than trying to stymie employees' social networking, consultants say, HR leaders can make it work to their companies' advantage.
"The greatest challenge facing HR executives in relation to this is overcoming their bias and other executives' bias to assess employee performance on an input basis, rather than a results basis," says Jason Henham, the managing director of Slate Consulting, a management consulting firm based in Melbourne, Australia, and Washington.
The results seem to align with sentiments expressed by many HR managers, Henham says.
"I don't agree that time spent using social media is a good measure by which employee performance should be assessed. Companies should review their social media policies, but these policies should refer to matters such as ownership of information, representation of the company and the capacity to link personal use of social media to the employer," he says.
"If performance is results-based, regularly monitored and reported on, with clear incentives for strong performance and disincentives for poor performance, the use of social media becomes a moot point from a productivity perspective."
The survey, conducted jointly from June to October by the software company MySammy and Holos Research, asked respondents in the HR industry to discuss perceived social media threats. Results showed that, in addition to concerns about security threats and decreased productivity, 76 percent of HR leaders questioned worry that employees would use social media outlets to harm their companies' reputations, though only 38 percent said their companies block access to social media sites. Of those who said they were not blocking access, two-thirds said they are not monitoring time employees spend on those sites.
Scott Healy, a consultant with Chicago-based strategy execution firm Gagen MacDonald, says allowing social media use can help build a culture of openness and trust.
"That kind of sentiment resonates more than some HR professionals may realize. When employees feel more trusted by their employers, they often feel more engaged -- which means they're also more likely to perceive their own contributions to the company's bottom line," Healy says. "An engaged employee is also less likely to do something that might undermine the company's success."
Despite the apprehension respondents noted in the survey, more than half said they felt social media could be useful for employees in their job duties. Gagen MacDonald also has conducted research in which the majority of employees said using social media websites helped them better collaborate with colleagues.
"I'm not trying to suggest that posting Lolcats on Facebook is a constructive use of time, but some of the most productive employees are using the tips and tricks they've learned from Facebook and Twitter to improve the way they build teams, search for information or contribute to information ecosystems where data is easier to search and find," Healy says. "In fact, the 'smartest' workplaces are those that are using hashtags and user-built profiles to allow employees to identify their own areas of expertise and contribute to searchable conversations around new ideas and concepts."
Donald W. Schroeder says that while there is no question social media use can affect productivity, revising social media policies should be done thoughtfully -- and with input from representatives across the company.
"HR personnel should initially develop a small working group which includes a diverse cross-section of the company to ensure that any social media policy that is implemented by the company has sufficient 'buy-in' across the entire workforce and deals with the use of social media in a realistic, thoughtful fashion," says Schroeder, an attorney in the Boston office of law firm Mintz Levin.
The survey results also showed that 69 percent of respondents indicated they already had revised their companies' policies. Schroeder offers a few tips to keep in mind when updating or adding social media policies:
"While employers have a right to review any information that is publicly available in deciding whether to offer a position to an applicant or take disciplinary action against a current employee, the company should not engage in any pro-active efforts to learn an employee's Facebook password or engage in routine monitoring of each employee's email communications and use of social media in the workplace," he says.
Employers should ensure that employees are well-informed of limitations to their use of social media while at work, he says.
"Like any employment policy," he says, "the company should apply its social-media policy in a fair, consistent manner across the workforce."