By Pamela Babcock
Even though employees may misuse social media—and need to be trained on what is and is not acceptable—it is a powerful tool that companies can use to promote ethical practices and culture, a recent study found.
To more effectively engage employees, enhance ethics and compliance programs, and positively affect workplace culture, businesses should tap their employees’ expertise and encourage workers to use social media, according to a July 17, 2103, report from the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) in Arlington, Va. The key is seizing the opportunity of having tech-savvy employees who are invested in the company while mitigating the risk of inappropriate postings.
“If you can’t beat them, leverage them,” quipped ERC President Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D., adding that active social networkers “have a really strong interest in the culture of the workplace. They are more likely to be responsive if you’re making use of social networks to address company culture and employee concerns.”
The report, National Business Ethics Survey of Social Networkers: New Risks and Opportunities at Work, is based on responses to a September 2012 online poll from 2,089 workers at U.S.-based companies. Respondents to the survey, sponsored by PwC and NAVEX Global, said they were active on at least one social networking site.
Andrea Falcione, J.D., PwC’s managing director of risk assurance in Boston, said companies are missing a tremendous opportunity “to show that their organizations take this stuff seriously and that it’s in the blood of the organization.”
Social networkers can help business leaders, HR and ethics professionals improve workplace culture. But companies first need a policy that’s “very clear about what’s acceptable and not acceptable behavior,” Harned stressed.
Not Just Younger Workers
Perhaps not surprisingly, active social networkers (those spending 30 percent or more of their day online) air company linen in public. Six out of 10 said they’d comment on their personal sites about their company if it were in the news; 53 percent share information about work projects at least once a week; and more than a third often comment on personal sites about managers, co-workers and even clients, the study found.
But some findings may come as a surprise. Among them:
Training Is Key
Having a solid social media policy and training employees can change behaviors while improving compliance and reducing risk.
CPR (communicate, prepare and respond) is essential, according to Steve Miranda, SPHR, GPHR, managing director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies and the Society for Human Resource Management’s former chief HR and content integration officer.
Communicate: Have a clearly documented policy. Employees need to know if it’s OK to post the company logo on Facebook or whether they’re authorized to post something online about the company’s downsizing.
Prepare: Train and educate staff. If a contractor offers tickets to a major sporting event, can you accept? Raytheon depicts such scenarios using humorous videos so that “it’s not like you’re slapping employees on the back of the wrist with a ruler and saying ‘Obey!’” Miranda explained.
Review: Use surveys or Internet/security monitoring to gauge whether the policy is working. Is inappropriate or sensitive client information being posted online? Consider highlighting examples of employees (names can be removed) who were dismissed for breaching social media protocol.
Zappos offers Twitter training during new-hire orientation and has hundreds of employees on Twitter, noted Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, president of ITM Group Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based HR training consulting firm, and a member of SHRM’s Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility special expertise panel.
Even if a company decides not to be active on social media, employees should be trained to use the tools—especially privacy settings, she added.
“Training is an effective way to engage employees and demonstrate commitment to the ethical use of the tool,” Lauby said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.
Steps Companies Can Take
Generally, Falcione said, companies in the United Kingdom and Europe use social media to communicate compliance and ethics issues more than their U.S. counterparts.
Some organizations offer texting for employees to report actual or potential misconduct. Ultimately, the text might go to the company hotline or a third-party administrator. Others provide Web-based platforms where workers can report misconduct.
Ingrid Fredeen, vice president of NAVEX’s ethical leadership group, said companies should think broadly about social media. Setting up a “full-blown” Facebook or LinkedIn page for ethics isn’t necessary. She said companies should consider doing the following:
Using sites like Facebook and YouTube to share positive stories externally. Many large organizations regularly promote good deeds and their commitment to ethics and compliance.
How Much Is Too Much?
What about the ethics of employees using social media for personal benefit while on the company dime?
Fredeen said many organizations allow “reasonable use” of social media and have found that permitting employees some personal use of networking sites helps keep them engaged and is more realistic from a policy-enforcement perspective.
“Having a policy that bans personal use is really untenable today,” and fair and consistent enforcement is virtually impossible, Fredeen wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online. Although the report study said monitoring can help, it’s “a thorny legal area,” and companies should get legal advice before implementing such a program, she suggested.
“Personal use of social media should not interfere with employees’ jobs nor hinder productivity,” added Falcione. “As with anything, there is a fine line, and it behooves companies to stay ahead of any negative trends.”
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.