Michael Specht

A blog from Australia looking at technology, management, Human Resources (HR) and recruitment.

Social Media In the Workplace

May 11th, 2009 · 5 Comments · HR Management, Recruitment, Social Networks · 12,804 views



Below are my notes for the talk I have given over the last week on social media in the workplace. I admit they do not flow as an essay as they supplemented my slides, hopefully you can derive my messages.

For nearly 20 years geeks have been operating in the backrooms of your organisations communicating across the Internet using tools such as Gopher, IRC, Usenet and HTTP. Then in 1994 Marc Andressen released Netscape Navigator into the world, since then it has never been the same.

Netscape allowed non technical people for the first time to graphically see not only documents on the Internet but also their relationships. This was the birth of the web as we know it today.

Everything on the web today has been built on these foundations. Including social media.
The first true social technology was the reply all button in email. As much as we often despise this feature for the first time it allowed people, through a single click of a button, to engage and collaborate with a large group of individuals. The first social gesture.

I have spent the last 2 and a half days at the Australasian Talent Conference where there was lots and lots of talk about social media and its impact on business, talent and the workplace. However most of the questions and comments tended to be we don’t understand it, it is a waste of time, we are ignoring it and where is the ROI. There is fear, uncertainty and misinformation amongst many of the leaders in business.

To help overcome these issues I will initially be spending time look at the foundations of social media before taking an trip in to using social media in the workplace.

But first a bit about me, so who is Michael Specht?

I have been online for 20 years, in 1990 I experienced my first virtual social connections through a tool called Compuserve. For the last 15 years I have been working with HR technology and for the last 5 year commenting on its impact on HR and our workplaces. I set up one of the first corporate job boards in Australia in 1996, one of the first deployments of Employee Self Service in 1998 and a shared service environment in 1994!

During that time I have seen the rise of social media from something only the geeks used to a topic that is covered in the daily broadsheets.

As expected I have profiles on all of the major social media sites including LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and of course a blog which has close to 5,000 unique readers every month, the blog has also appear several times in Top HR blogs listing, the latest being.

You could say I live on the web.

For many social media is seen as Facebook or Twitter but it is more than that and has been around for a very long time. Before you can understand the impacts on the workplace you need to understand the history of social media.

So what is social media?

Some of the key attributes of social media are

  • Participation
  • Openness and Transparency
  • Conversations and Communities
  • Utilising the concept of wisdom of crowds
  • And providing a rich user experience

It is also about relationships, not transactions, and treating people as human beings not numbers, objects or assets!

Social media has been built on technology called Web 2.0 which provides the enabling tools and techniques to deliver these rich and engaging applications. Web 2.0 provides the foundation for reuse, and the rich and engaging applications we have today.

But social media is not a silver bullet to an organisations woes, it will not save a bad or dying product. Allowing it in the workplace will not automatically make your workplace a better place. Knowledge will not be magically retained.

No social media is not a silver bullet, but left unchecked it can and will do damage to your workplace.

To quote the 34th President of the US “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him”

Social media is the future and it is not going away any time soon.

You may be thinking wait a minute Michael are we not moving a bit too quickly could this all be just hype and we are stand perilously on the peak of inflated expectations before we dive down in the deep trough of disillusionment?

I say no, and here is why.

Put your hands up who has read or heard of The Cluetrain Manifesto? This seminal work was published 11 years ago before Web 2.0 before Facebook, Twitter and all things we consider social media.

Within this book the authors through their 95 thesis’s predicted the change in business. The move to a world that had no boarders, consumers worked together, share information and subverted the corporate hierarchies.

The ultimate thesis is the one that Markets are Conversations and that it is the end of business as usual.

Since then we have seen a dramatic growth in social media usage.

Remember your employees are using these tools even if you don’t realise it. They have it at home, on their phones everywhere.

Add to this that the workplace is changing. Those crazy Gen Y’s will make up 42% of the workforce by 2020, let’s not even begin to think about to ones behind.

You might be thinking ok this is BIG, but isn’t just a big waste of time?

Well yes if you do not understand how to leverage it. In the same way as the telephone could be just a tool for gossip, without many businesses would not survive.

The benefits of social media are as wide and diverse as the corporations you all represent. You can enhance communication between employees, and between employees and customers and even between customers. Social media also provides a cost effective method of connecting with your customers. Did you know Dell can directly show over US$1 million dollars in revenue from Twitter during 2008!

Bigpond Employee: 

“From an employees point of view, Jase, Steph & myself do feel more engaged. We are giving the ‘faceless corporation’, a face and are showing that we do care about what people say and think about us. Its not always an easy task, but it is one that we enjoy. Honestly, I look forward to coming into work and interacting with the twitterverse. We can only get bigger and better!“

Now for the workplace issues, this is what you came for. I can summarise about 80% of the presentation in to this one slide.

  1. There are lots of issues
  2. You need to understand them
  3. But they are similar to existing issues in the workplace
  4. It is just that the technology is different.

In 1683 British Quaker, William Penn said “knowledge is the treasure, but judgement the treasurer of a wise man“

These are four recent examples where employees use of social media may not of displayed the most discerning of judgments.

  1. Californian KFC workers were fired for publishing these shots of them bathing in a KFC basin on MySpace
  2. Kristy and Michael ex-Domino’s employees in North Carolina in the US were firing and arrested after they published videos of themselves on the web fouling up customers’ food
  3. 16 year old Kimberley Swann in the UK, was sacked from Ivell Marketing & Logistics for posting on her Facebook profile that her office administration job was boring.
  4. Telstra Leslie Nassar who is the popular Twitter impersonator of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy

The first two are examples where the employees were in my opinion in breach of employment conditions. However the last two exhibit the grey areas that plague workplaces today.

This was Kimberley’s first real office job, yes she had been briefly employed at a call centre before but this was her first office job. Her employer only found out after she allowed another employee to become a “friend” on Facebook. In her status updates she never mentioned the company she worked for, and as an office administrator she was hardly an official spokesperson or a public figure where people reading her update could determine the company she was referring to. So publicly little if any damage.

Owner of Ivell Marketing & Logistics, Steve Ivell was quoted in the press as saying Kimberley was sacked as she obviously disliked her job and that Ivell Marketing & Logistics was a family company that did not tolerate this type of behaviour.

While the status update might not have been the smartest of things to do, but look how many 16 year olds are worldly wise? Also being a family company Ivell Marketing & Logistics might have done better to look after their young and naive employees and mentor them. Personally I don’t think it should result in immediate dismissal. The company would have done better to take on board the fact that she was bored and look at ways to use her skills, also explaining that posting on Facebook was not the smartest of moves. If she did it again then look at discipline actions.

Further to this if they had done nothing Ivell Marketing & Logistics or Steve Ivell would not have been all over the Internet, resulting in them having to remove the Contact Us page on their web site due Facebook users crashing their email server.

Leslie Nassar’s case is far more complex and has more relevance as it happened in Australia and in one of our leading public companies.

Leslie is a long time thought leader online and behind the ABC moving into podcasting before he moved to Telstra. Leslie has also been outspoken against government policy writing under his own name on the site “Department of Internets”. Leslie did not start the Fake Stephen Conroy Twitter account and only took it over last few months of 2008. Once he was “outed” as being behind the account things got very nasty. His immediate management told him to cease writing immediately; however no one told the rest of the organisation that this was the case. Resulting in several very embarrassing situations where on Telstra’s formal blog “Now We Are Talking” spokespeople were denying Leslie had been told to stop, when in fact he had. These perceived double crossing and cover up by Telstra sent Leslie over the top. At which point he “let rip” on Twitter publically calling Telstra out and swearing by name at the bloggers on “Now We Are Talking”. Following this Leslie was called to Sydney to meet the CTO who head eventually reported to. Even then there was more confusion as at one point it seemed Leslie had been fired.

Now last week Telstra launched their Social Media Policy, which had been in development for five months and tries to outline a framework for employees to operate within when using social media.

So what are the issues around social media in the workplace? As I have said there are many of them, I will cover them at a high level.

Uncontrolled social media can be a drain on productivity, there have been numerous commentator over the last couple of years stating how many billions of dollars Australia is wasting on Facebook or MySpace.

Confidentiality is another common concern that I hear from people. “What happens if my top secret project gets twittered all over the globe?” Well, um I reckon you have a bigger issue of it being emailed accidently to someone or a disgruntled employee walking off with it on a USB stick.

Inappropriate content! Well this is an issue with the Internet in general. Most workplaces have figured ways of providing access to the staff that need it without pornography taking over the workplace.

The biggest contributor to appropriate usage of the internet in the workplace has been user education. An anonymous survey last year found that only 1% of internet users used it inappropriately in the workplace.

Exclusion is another issue, and it can be real. Imagine the footy boys in the office create a Facebook groups just for them and exclude everyone else. Again a general workplace issue but employees may not realise that by doing so they could be in fact discriminating against others

Friending, can also be a process of exclusion. Where someone refuses to be another “friend”.

Probably the bigger issue is de-friending. Many people change the way they use social media over time. So over time someone in the workplace who was a “friend” is no more. Could this be discrimination, exclusions or bullying?

Harassment, in all its forms. I know of examples where employees have continued to request to be a friend of another work colleague on Facebook to the point where the colleague began to feel harassed, they went to the point of writing on others walls as to why the employee would not accept their friend request.

Employees need to understand privacy. All social media tools have privacy settings. Learning how to use them and what each mean are critical for a fun and safe experience online.
What about technology risks? Westpac allows Facebook to be used in the workplace. However in consultation with the IT department certain “port”, the method software talks to each other, have been blocked as they can allow a security risk.

Could we at the end of the day be extending the definition of the workplace into social media? What happens if you have a company sponsored group in Facebook. Does that mean you support the use of Facebook. Now if an employee was to join Facebook just to participate in the company group and then they are harassed is the company liable?
What does social media do for industrial relations?

Management of reputation and official messages are also critical. As a company moves into Social Media understanding how to distinguish between official and personal messages are critical.

Management of social media in the workplace is like regular management. It’s all management.

You need governance.

Today companies tend to be taking one of four approaches to managing social media in the workplace. First totally forbid it, while I would not recommend this cause of action some may choose this path. Toleration of social media is a bit like sitting on the fence or the Ostridge approach. Using only for marketing this works for some organisations but it ignores the fact that employees are engaging in social media. The final approach is to encourage it, but still have a way to indicate personal vs professional communications.

Of course there are variations on the themes, and the key to any approach to the education of employees about their rights and responsibilities when using social media. Even outside of the office.

Before you start the process of building a policy you need to look at the overall governance approach. Without a good governance model, your employees and the organisation, will be left open to abuse and potential legal issues.

At a minimum, put down some “rules of engagement”, depending on your corporate culture, they can be simple or complex, preferably simple! Remember some of your existing governance models and policies will apply so don’t over engineer things.

You need to ensure that the social media specific issues are addressed. 

A specific policy increases certainty for employees and reduces risk for the company
While you need a policy but do you really want to create mountains of paper that your employees will dutifully agree to and then ignore as they continue to operate as they did before.

  • Telstra, the 45,000+ ex Government organisation’s policy is only 6 pages long with one of those being the approval section and references!
  • The Powerhouse Museum of Sydney’s blog policy released in April 2007 is 4 pages with 3 of content. 
  • The Australian Public Service Commission’s document is 5 pages when printed. 

These policies are usable and enable the employees in these organisations to participate in the creation of social media without the shackles of paperwork and policy. A policy must match your organisation culture and at the same time embrace the principles of social media, that being;

  • Transparency
  • Conversations and communities
  • Treat people as human beings
  • Wisdom of crowds
  • Rich user experience
  • User participation and generation of content
  • Joining groups of similar interests

How will your company use social media?

  • What is your corporate culture
  • Consultation with employees
  • Remember we are all learning

Test your policy

I have five very simple themes that you need to cover, along with the administrative issues around implementation and execution.

First the policy must get employees to stop and think before posting. I am sure we have all written an email in haste and wished it could be taken back. Well in social media you can’t!

Once the Googles of the world index the content it remains in the search engine caches forever!

They must use the grey matter between their shoulder blades. If they don’t all sorts of issues can arise.

Disclaimers are critical. Not just the one where the views posted are the owners not the companies. What about client and supplier relationship if these are being discussed? And back to the views are those of the owner. Could this be in violation of your existing confidentiality and intellectual property policies?

The policy should ensure employees know to keep it real. These mediums are not for old school marketing. They are about conversations, communities and above all relationships. Corporate monotone will just not work.

Finally employees need to understand that they need to respect the tools and services they are using. A forum is not the place to resolve personal issues, Twitter is not the place to spam people about your latest products.

So what would a social media policy look like? What would it cover?

You also need to cover the more important administrative items that you need to cover include highlight employee duties, define consequences of non-compliance and you MUST MUST MUST actively support the implementation. Which leads us nicely onto policy implementation.

Some of the best practices that should be applied with social media in the workplace.

So how do you implement a social media policy?

Managing your brand or the potential impact on the brand is another common concern.
But regardless of what you do as an organisation people will be talking about you and your brand. As a test when you leave here today type in your company name into Google and the word sucks, see what come up you might be surprised.

If you are like most organisations your brand is critical to business success.

As consumers our attachment to a specific brand tends to be emotional not logical. For many we justify our brand decisions based on pseudo logical argument, but fundamentally at the end of the day attachment to a brand are about emotion. And how is that emotion built? Through our experience when interacting with the brand, usually this is with employees. We build connections and relationships with the employees of the brands before we make purchasing decisions.

So at this core brands are intangible it is the people behind the brands that engage us. However this intangible item has a worth far from trivial. The worth of the top ten brands in 2006 was almost $400 billion and eclipsed the Gross Domestic Product (PPP) of the world’s 80 poorest countries ($350billion). Kuwait’s entire economy was about the size of GE; meanwhile, Iceland equals UPS; and Brunei is MTV.

So your brand is worth something. People drive your brands worth. This is interesting because in the 2009 Weber Shandwick Survey of senior executives 34% know or admit to knowing of a fellow employee who has badmouthing their company online! This badmouthing has an impact on your brand and its worth. The process of reputation management is critical with social media.

So how do we manage your reputation online, this is both a corporate reputation and your personal reputation. We all know about employer branding and its importance. 

Many leading companies are targeting top talent through employer branding strategies
It is easier to hire good talent that comes to you. Last century potential employees would conduct Dun & Bradstreet searches to find out about an organisation. Today they use Google.

Australian example of witchery. Who has heard of Vouge Forums? It is a place where many Gen Y girls tend to hang out discussing fashion. This community also works as a sounding board on everything fashion related including working for different retail outlets. There are discussions several discussions on the site were about how Witchery treats their employees, what the benefits are like and how they compare to other retail outlets.

In Summary:

  1. Social media is not bad
  2. Social media has lots of benefits
  3. You need a policy, but it must match your culture
  4. Social media is there even if you ignore it
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