Social Media: What are the pros and cons of using social media in the workplace? What should we include in a policy?

While workplace use of social media is now mainstream, its use has evolved in recent years. While lost productivity was the overriding initial concern, how to harness the power of social media has moved to the forefront.

Before weighing the pros and cons, some definitions will be helpful. Social media is an umbrella term and refers to “media” (a video, text, picture, podcast, etc.) being shared (“social”) on Web-based applications for others to interact with by posting, sharing and commenting. Conversely, more traditional media (television, newspapers and magazines, etc.) is static and does not allow users to interact with the content. Yelling at your TV, for any number of reasons, doesn’t count.

Social networking is a specific type of social media that enables users to connect with others and create a community. It’s more about building relationships than simply announcing or posting and not engaging with others. Employers can both utilize an internal social networking site for their employees, and leverage public-facing social media platforms to market their brand and attract employees and customers. SHRM offers members their own social networking site, SHRM Connect, to engage and network with fellow SHRM members.

Regardless of which types of social media an employer may use to meet business goals, certain advantages and disadvantages specific to HR are listed below. For a more detailed discussion, see SHRM’s toolkit Managing and Leveraging Workplace Use of Social Media.

Advantages

  • Aid in recruitment. Social media platforms can be used to publicize job openings, source candidates and verify background information.
  • Market the employer brand. Sharing media about employee events and company values can help establish an employer brand to attract applicants and customers.
  • Deliver internal communications. HR communications on policies, benefits, company news, social events, professional development and more can be made available to employees at any time.
  • Engage employees. Internal social networking platforms can be more engaging and inspire greater participation than regular e-mail communications. Employees may feel they have more of a voice when their postings and comments are actively encouraged.
  • Promote social learning and knowledge sharing. Providing employees with a way to connect with co-workers to solve problems promotes social learning and can increase knowledge sharing globally.
  • Communicate during a disaster. Displaced employees can see emergency information from their devices to stay in touch with the employer and receive direction.
  • Professional networking. HR professionals can network with peers, keep pace with competitors, and help attract clients whose values align with the employer brand.

Disadvantages

  • Security. Using social media platforms on company networks opens the door to hacks, viruses and privacy breaches.
  • Harassment. Employees may engage in harassing behaviors toward co-workers on a social network, and HR will need to take action if it becomes aware of such behaviors.
  • Negative exposure. Postings from former or current employees, or even clients casting the employer in a negative light, may damage the employer’s reputation.
  • Legal violations. Employers become more susceptible to charges of discrimination, privacy violations and interference with employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, among other violations, when social media is used in the workplace.
  • Potential loss of productivity. Some employees may spend an inordinate amount of time on social media for personal reasons while at work. Enforcing a clear policy on terms of use while working can help to mitigate this risk.
  • Wage and hour issues. Nonexempt employees restricted to certain working hours may incur additional compensable hours, including overtime, more easily through social media use. 

Policy Guidance

If employees are allowed access to social media platforms, then a comprehensive and well-defined policy should be established to prevent abuse and reduce employer risk. While legal review is always recommended, a social media use policy generally:

  • Defines what social media is, so employees know exactly what is covered.
  • Establishes a clear and defined purpose for the policy and any employer objectives.
  • Communicates the benefits of having a social media policy.
  • Indicates who is responsible for the management of social media for the company.
  • Defines appropriate use and takes into consideration any legal ramifications of inappropriate postings.
  • Identifies what is considered confidential information, such as trade secrets, and other types of information not to be shared.
  • Talks about productivity in terms of social media use during work time.
  • Provides guidance regarding social media use outside of company time that could be associated with the company, employees or customers.
  • Refers to other company conduct policies directly and makes it clear that they apply to behaviors on social media.
  • Provides examples of policy violations and outlines disciplinary measures to be taken when violations occur.
  • Aligns branding in company-related postings—same style, format, usernames, etc.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of social media is that it encourages people to share personal information. Even the most cautious and well-meaning employees can give away information they should not; the same applies to what is posted on company-approved social media platforms. Employees may not be aware of how their actions online may compromise company security. Educate them as to how a simple click on a received link or a downloaded application can result in a virus infecting their computer and the network. Advise them not to click on suspicious links and to pay careful attention when providing personal information online. Remember that just because employees may have an online profile, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a high level of security awareness.

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