Editor's note: This is a guest post by Sue Lingard.
Social media is everyone’s best friend and worst enemy. It’s great at breaking news stories, celebrating life events and getting people in trouble.
In fact, according to research by CareerBuilder, 18% of employers report that they've fired employees because of something they posted on social media.
Yet with around 500 million tweets sent every day, an average of 1.09 billion daily active users on Facebook and 10 billion videos being watched on Snapchat a day (up from 8 billion in February), it’s clear that social media is an everyday aspect of most of our lives.
The question for employers is whether social media at work – or for work – is to be encouraged, discouraged or even totally banned.
Let’s start with some definitions.
In a typical workplace, you’ll have three different areas that fall under the blanket term ‘social media’.
Company social media accounts
As a business, it’s unlikely that you’ll be operating without some kind of social media presence. This can be anything from a company LinkedIn page to a Facebook profile or a Snapchat account depending on your brand, product, or service.
These are typically run by your marketing department, and toe the corporate line in terms of content, strategy and tone of voice.
Enterprise communication and collaboration platforms
While some companies are happy to use private groups within social media platforms to share information internally (or with customers), others turn to private platforms, such as Yammer, Slack, or social media tools that come with some of the more modern, collaborative CRMs or HR software systems.
These systems still count as social media, but are limited to the people you invite - and content is protected by company-governed security rules.
Personal social media
As you’d expect, of most concern to an employer is access to employees’ personal social media accounts. These are the accounts that they own, over which you have precious little control.
Do you let them have access at work? Do you monitor what employees are posting? How do protect your brand from maverick – or just technologically inept – employees?
Assessing the risk
The risks related to business social media profiles are generally limited, especially if you’ve an experienced team managing your communications. The users know what they’re doing, and posts can go through sign off if required.
The only worries here tend to be around how to use social media to best advantage – are you reaching the right audience and getting the expected return on investment – and what to do if the person that set them up leaves the company, or if a social media manager fails to handle something in the most appropriate way.
Enterprise social media is also fairly low risk as it all happens within the constraints of a secure platform. However, there are other issues to consider. Research by Acas [pdf] discovered that “many employers are wary of using social media to communicate in the workplace because they are afraid it will be misused by their employees.”
The same report found that employers’ concerns include “online conversations getting out of hand, having to act on employee suggestions and employees not using social media for work purposes.”
However, the biggest concern by far is either employees posting inappropriate comments about the company, their colleagues or their customers, or wasting company time by using personal social media accounts during their working hours.
Companies will often block access to sites such as YouTube, Netflix and Spotify to stop employees streaming hours of music and video and slowing down the whole network for everyone else.
Is banning social media at work the best approach?
The argument for blocking social media sites
An article in Workplace Answers claims that as many as 36% of companies block social media at work, with business leaders expressing “rising concerns” about the risks surrounding social media in the workplace. These include “misuse of confidential information, misrepresenting the views of the business, inappropriate non-business use, disparaging remarks about the business or employees” and also, “harassment”.
Results from an independent survey by salary.com suggest productivity is a big issue, with 89% of respondents saying they waste time on the internet at work on a daily basis. However, of this 89%, the majority said they are frittering time away on the internet in general, citing Google as the “biggest online time waster”.
Only 23% of respondents said that Facebook was the biggest culprit, with 14% instead naming LinkedIn.
Would a social media ban help this problem? Would these employees become instantly more productive, or is it likely to lead them to waste time in other ways?
The argument against blocking
The first question to ask is: how effective would a social media ban be?
Whilst blocking access across the company network may stop employees using social media on work devices in the office, they still have personal mobile phones.
It’s also not as straightforward as blocking absolutely everyone, as social media is a key part of some job roles.
You’ll need different settings for employees who need to use social media at work - for example those in research, customer service and marketing.
Practicalities aside, there are also a number good reasons for letting employees access social media at work, including:
Trust is important to many of today’s employees. If they feel that you respect and trust them, they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile for you.
Blanket blocking of social media sends out a message that feels more like Orwellian Big Brother than a respected colleague.
On the positive side, using public or private social media to help staff stay up to date with what’s happening across the organisation can really boost staff morale and sense of belonging.
A quick scroll through your employee portal, public Twitter feed or Facebook posts can make them feel connected to your overall business objectives and the people they work with - especially for remote workers, who can't catch up on water cooler conversations so easily.
Allowing employees to access social media can actually improve productivity. Professor Joe Nandhakumar of Warwick Business School studied technology companies in the UK, Finland and Germany. He found “that the ubiquitous digital connectivity altered workers’ sense of ‘presence’ and helped rather than hindered the effective completion of collective tasks.”
As a business, it can take time to get customers to a place where they are willing to post a positive review for your product or service online. However, when it comes to your employees, you’re already working hard to ensure they’re happy in their roles, so why not utilise that positivity?
Letting employees use social media platforms to talk about your business, their role and the people they work with helps you reach a bigger audience of potential employees (think about the success of sites like Glassdoor) and customers.
Searchengineland.com reported that “nearly 9 in 10 consumers have read online reviews to determine the quality of a local business”, so let your employees contribute to your online presence.
Online retailer ASOS encourages employees to associate themselves with the brand on Twitter and Instagram. Some of these employees have thousands of followers of their own, and are fantastic brand advocates. For example, this ASOS employee has received over 1,000 likes on an Instagram post of her at the ASOS summer party, wearing an ASOS outfit and highlighting the fun company culture.
It’s clear that there’s no straightforward answer to the social media at work dilemma. It all depends on your business and your circumstances.
However, whichever route you choose, the ubiquitous smartphone means it’s almost impossible to completely ban social media in the workplace.
Perhaps instead of using all your effort to block or police social media, focus on encouraging good behaviour that applies in and out of the workplace.
You can ask employees to add a disclaimer to their profile(s) that says “views my own”, or run workshops to help them use social media to represent your brand in a positive way.
Put together a social media policy that provides a safety net if things go wrong, but keep it short and sweet. Remember to start from a position of trust.
Additionally, if you want to push the boundaries, try telling employees that taking small social media breaks throughout the day is actually fine – as a reward for finishing a piece of work, putting in extra hours, or simply so they can keep in touch with news and events that really matter to them (whether that’s the latest football score, Pokémon sighting or even what their Aunt Kim had for breakfast).
Author bio: Sue Lingard is Marketing Director for Cezanne HR, a supplier of SaaS HR solutions for mid-sized and growing local and international businesses. Having studied HR as a post-graduate at the London School of Economics, Sue's career has covered HR, technology, sales and marketing.