Burn the Witch! HR’s (Incorrect) Vilification of Social Media…

HR practitioners around the country are facing an acute legal headache over the new corporate practice known as ‘Social Media Dunking’.  Line managers nationwide have reportedly been taking whole teams to rivers, lakes and ponds and hurling terrified staff into Britain’s murky waters.

If employees float, the only possible conclusion is that they have been wasting time on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, justifying a hand out of the water followed by instant dismissal.  Conversely, if staff sink, this signifies that they have never misused Social Media at work, which clears their name, but creates an extra parking space in the office due to death by drowning.

This example is, of course, fictitious (one would hope…), yet many companies vilify users of Social Media as if they were in fact mediaeval witches.  But why?  Of course, spending three hours in the office creating a photo album entitled ‘Magaluf Mayhem – Boys Weekend 2010’, and tagging all of your mates in compromising photographs that will irk potential employees is NOT conducive to productive use of the medium.  But, contrary to widespread belief amongst management functions, this does not comprise the sole use of Social Media.

One of the most frequently cited criticisms of Social Media in the workplace is that people ‘waste time on it.’  But what about employees who slink off to office kitchens and spend a good 10 minutes gossiping to colleagues about the previous Friday’s leaving do?  Surely, by default, an employee who spends 5 minutes chatting on Facebook is wasting less time than the office gossips?

And what about those who actually harness the power of Social Media for productive work use?  Multi-faceted, Twitter is a powerful communications tool that allows real networking to take place – simply look at the results of #ConnectingHR for a tangible example of Twitter’s ability to connect professionals.  Want to build a professional network that will benefit your business or brand?  5 minutes of tweeting a day could easily serve this purpose – while others discuss Sheila’s new toy boy over a slowly boiling kettle.

Sure, HR as a function has to ensure that Social Media is, like anything else, not misused.  Naturally, there will always exist a faction of disgruntled workers who do try and waste time on, amongst other things, Social Media sites.  But the trap HR practitioners desperately need to avoid falling into is demonizing Social Media and believing that it is inherently a ‘time-wasting’ exercise.

Proactive use of Social Media can greatly enhance the professional reputation of your staff as brand advocates and professional thought-leaders, which naturally leads into a debate surrounding the merging functions of marketing and HR. But Social Media, like many online tools, can greatly enhance the productivity of your people – and it’s crucial that HR functions don’t lose sight of this – proven – fact.

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5 responses to “Burn the Witch! HR’s (Incorrect) Vilification of Social Media…

  1. Excellent article!

    The challenge, of course, is that neither HR, nor line managers for that matter, can control social media. That’s the nature of the beast – it’s a completely different paradigm from the relatively more static way in which things were once communicated and marketed. It’s more about people and relationships, and less about clever positioning and control.

    With control, of course, comes power. I wonder whether part of the HR issue is about what power they imagine they’ll lose if social media becomes more an adopted norm in their firms. What skeletons they’d have to look at that they’d really rather not.

  2. Another great post Callum and, once again, I’m with you all the way on this one.

    The question of productivity always comes up whenever I’ve worked with companies embarking on a social strategy. And, the question of security and leaks is always a biggie (and often an excuse for blocking).

    I’ve built of a whole host of case studies and examples to help convince the nay sayers. But, one of the most useful resources I’ve come across is the interview with Jon Iwata, IBM’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Comms. You can check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0WsxCumPoU.

    I’ve always found this a great tool to use when needing to convince leaders that being social is nothing to be alarmed about but rather is something to embrace.

  3. Hi Callum,
    Let me attempt to respond on behalf of HR Professionals. It isn’t as clear cut as stating that the use of social media should be allowed or not. Many organisations including HR, nowadays use social media for different reasons such as to promote their brand and search for talent, for graduate recruitment, to communicate etc. But we must admit that just as with laws which people need to comply with and inevitably some do break it, employees also need to comply with their Company Social Media guidelines where it is allowed just like with E-mail Policies and use of Internet. I think it is more about individuals and exercising self discipline about how much time they spend or devote to using social media at work at work at the expense of working and producing results as well as not engaging in activities that break the rules and regulations set. Christine is right that it is the nature of the beast but even the beast has to be controlled sometimes if it runs wild. It’s all about striking the right balance, I believe. The comparison between perceived waste of time in the use of social media if unecessary just for for chit chat and gossip is in fact akin to time wasted on office gossips, politics etc that don’t add any value to organisations.

  4. Thanks for all of your comments so far! In weaving a humorous thread through the fabric of this post, I feel I have sacrificed an element of seriousness!

    First of all, I’m fully aware that several HR departments embrace Social Media – I’m lucky enough to work for one such business. The claim I struggle with is that even when employees are having a quick dip into Facebook, this is seen as a bad thing.

    Without wishing to incriminate myself, there are a thousand times to waste time in the office, of which Social Media can be one part. But with the increasing prevalence of Social Media, it seems to have been made the poster-boy for un-productivity and workplace slacking.

    Maria, I agree completely that it’s all about balance – of course – but I hear too many HR departments conducting outright bans, which I feel is detrimental to the possibilities presented by positive SM use.

    Abi – you’re right to highlight benefits to businesses – it’s this kind of education that will allow companies to see the advantages of using Social Media in the right way.

    Christine – your comments re. control are interesting and could perhaps inspire a future blog. ‘Social Media / HR Control’ is certainly one thing that is widely being practiced now by HR departments, albeit with varying degrees of severity.

  5. Callum,
    Good provocative post, which for the most part the replies above already have covered many of the angles in response.

    My view is straightforward and simple (simplistic?).

    Companies aiming to police this are wasting their time and arguably the overall productivity of their employees. If individuals are treated in a manner that deems them as trustworthy, then they will give more than a pound of their flesh. Most people are conscientious and treat their employers with respect.

    Those that don’t treat the hand that feeds with respect I would suggest are the potential problem, rather than social media per se. Marian’s comments that social media can be akin to gossip and idle chat is arguably part of office life. Whether this is to a greater or lesser degree surely depends of the nature of the people you employ.

    Hence my point would be around making sure the hiring strategy of a company is focused and well thought through, knowing as much as possible about the people you are hiring beforehand, resulting in needing to worry far less about how your people will treat / mistreat social media.

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