Solid employee policy is key to tapping power of social media in workplace

Recent studies confirm that sites like Facebook and YouTube are responsible for stealing hundreds of hours from employers every year.  Nucleus Research, a Boston-based IT research and consulting firm, for example, released a study this year that found companies that allow employees to access Facebook lose an average of 1.5 percent of total employee productivity during the workday.

Conversely, other studies indicate that the collaboration and knowledge-sharing benefits of social media may far outweigh the risks of lost productivity. PennEnergy and the Oil & Gas Research Center explored this issue and found that more than 40 percent of engineering professionals believed they could save at least one hour per day using information-sharing technologies, and the real obstacle was company management not seeing that potential.

Whatever the case in your company, history tells us burying your head in the sand and waiting for the fad to pass is not the solution.  Consider the chalkboard.  When first introduced in the 19th Century, nay sayers predicted the new medium would not last.  More than a century later, it has morphed for many classrooms (and boardrooms, too) into dry erase boards, but the essential concept remains with us even in today’s technological age.

That’s the way it is with new media.  Once a new application is introduced — be it a more user-friendly operating system, e-mail or, now, social media — society rarely digresses.  The technology may change and mutate, but it doesn’t revert. Like it or not, social networking is here to stay, and smart employers will work now to control it for the good of the company.

Identify the possibilities for your company.  The first step is to realize social networking’s possibilities as they exist today.  Many businesses are using social networking to recruit eager, talented workers; to promote new products and services; to connect with and gauge dialog between customers, thereby identifying unmet needs and potential new revenue sources; to exchange ideas and collaborate with other professionals in their industries. 

Consider the role of employees.  Once you see how social media may best benefit your business, consider the corresponding role of your employees in achieving your social media objectives.  Should your human resources person manage an active page on LinkedIn and have the ability to scan the site for potential talent?  Should your marketing person tweet about new product development on Twitter?  Should your customer service person administer a Facebook group for users of your products and services?  Understanding how employees figure into your overall social media strategy will help you craft a policy to make the most of it.

Develop a corresponding policy.  This may be the most critical step for employers today, not just for protecting productivity but also for protecting their companies in general.  One of the reasons many business owners are threatened by social media is because they fear employees may say something publicly that will harm the business — whether it be something defamatory about the company, derogatory about a supervisor, insensitive to customers or even spilling trade secrets.

A clear policy addressing these issues and a formalized system for dealing with problems can serve as a strong deterrent against these potentially harmful actions and protect the company in the event of a problem.  

A good policy will cover a myriad of issues, including first and foremost that employees should have no expectation of privacy for their activities on company equipment during company time.  It may address consequences for maligning the company, sexual harassment, penalties for spilling proprietary information, even decency clauses where they apply.

When it comes to social networking, business owners and managers report their greatest fear is that the tools will be abused and that the company will lose control of its own messages.  The reality is that if people are already badmouthing your company, social media won’t change that fact; it will only open your eyes to it so you can deal with it.  Further, if you trust your employees enough to talk with your customers, you should be able to trust them to use social media responsibly once they are trained.  The key is to control, preempt and manage, and a thorough, well communicated policy is the way.

For more information on developing employee policies in Wisconsin, contact Ellen Frantz at 608.784.5678.


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