Facebook announced this week is has 500 million users. And not one of them ever, ever, ever uses it at work.
At least, that's what some employers would like to believe. But the truth is, employees do use Facebook at work. They Twitter. They comment on blogs. That's just reality.
That's why I thought it would be interesting to look at how companies are handling the issue of employees using social media -- and how some of them are just ignoring it. Here's the column I did for Gannett/USAToday.com...
While many employers wring their hands over the use of social media by employees at work – fearing legal problems or lost productivity – the evidence is mounting that letting employees tweet or check Facebook during their workday is not only inevitable, but it may make good business sense.
Social media – often seen as a place to chat with friends or tell strangers about what you had for dinner – has evolved into a marketing tool that employers are harnessing to do everything from increasing their brand awareness to recruiting top talent.
Further, studies show that employees allowed to use social media on the jobs help drive profitability, improve customer service – and contrary to employer fears – may help workers do their jobs better.
For example, a Forrester Research study found that 70 percent of 303 information-technology workers who use social media said it makes them more productive. Further, a recent Right Management survey found that 51 percent of those working for employers with more than 10,000 employees said that social networking “seldom” interferes with productivity, while 41 percent of those at smaller companies report it “seldom” interferes.
“Social media is still viewed as a threat to productivity, but 10 years ago, they probably said the same thing about the Internet,” says Helene Cavalli, manager of marketing communications for Right Management in Philadelphia. “I think employers believe employees will waste time (on social media), but the truth is, they’re just as likely to walk to the kitchen and talk to other people.”
Cavalli points out that social media interaction isn’t always about discussing a new movie or dishing the latest gossip. It also can be about exchanging professional information and learning about industry trends.
That’s a view shared by Trish McFarlane, human resources business partner for St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
McFarlane says she has first-hand experience with how online interactions can pay off at work. Her boss recently asked her to find out how other companies engaged their employees, and how the hospital might be able to do similar projects. Instead of launching into time-consuming research of the issue, McFarlane turned to her social media network through her blog, HR Ringleader.
“Within a couple of days, I had 23 comments from people who went into great detail about the projects they were doing and offering me information,” she says. “And, if I had any questions, I could ask them, because they all included their e-mail addresses.”
McFarlane says her boss understands “I’m not flitting around all day on Facebook,” and recognizes the value of social networking.
The Forrester survey found that 72 percent of respondents reported social media helped them get answers to their questions, and 68 percent said it helped them gather information they needed to be successful.
Still, some companies have shied away from social media after warnings from legal experts that employers could be opening themselves up to a bevy of problems. For example, lawyers warn about workers divulging proprietary information or making discriminatory comments that could result in a lawsuit against an employer. On the other hand, some employers simply ignore social media: A report by Manpower says that 75 percent of employers don’t have a formal policy in place regarding social media use at work.
“I definitely think the benefits outweigh the risks,” McFarlane says. “And, employees are going to do it anyway. They can talk about work on Facebook using their (smart) phones, or they can tweet at midnight from home about work. That ship has already sailed.”
McFarlane says that the key is companies educating employees about proper communication on social media sites such as Facebook. “You have to allow for a little bit of normal conversation – you may put some personal information out there – but the key is that employees understand what the company wants them to share. “
For example, a glitch in a customer service process may have employees proactively using Twitter or Facebook to explain the problem, and how they’re working to solve it. (An Edison Research study found that of the 17 million Americans actively using Twitter, half of them followed a company, brand or product). Customer complaints are dealt with in real time, and workers feel like they’re contributing to the company’s success by helping deal with a problem.
Cavalli says that employees should be coached on how to play an active role in promoting their employer brand online, and informed of the no-no’s: Sharing confidential information or being negative, for example. She says leaders can “model” proper behavior online.
“I think you definitely need rules in place (for social media use at work), and you certainly can’t anticipate everything that will happen,” Cavalli says. “But it is a fantastic medium to help you learn from your peers and other experts, and gives you an access to that information you wouldn’t have had before.”
Do you think it's OK to use social media at work?