A manager's guide to social media

Use social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to create a harmonious workplace with our manager's guide to social media.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Once limited to hushed exchanges in the break room, employees have more venues to complain than ever. Web 2.0 tools have created a virtual water cooler, and employees' gossip — about everything from how managers handle layoffs to organising company social functions — can instantly reach an opinionated, enabling and often highly reactionary audience.

Think you can avoid it? Remember that the first reports about the recent plane crash into New York City's Hudson River came via Twitter. Protesting Moldovans turned to Twitter to circumvent an apparent blackout in coverage of their protests over alleged election fraud. A March survey of 500 small to medium businesses by UK mobile carrier O2 found 17 per cent were "tweeting" regularly and 28 per cent of those had started within the previous month.

While it represents the true democratisation of the internet, unmoderated social media also raises the potential for libel accusations, crippling morale issues and intra-office conflict. It's yet another headache for managers already navigating the challenges of tough economic times — but it's there whether you want it to be or not. The best approach: get your head out of the sand; you can't control the conversation, but at least you can be part of it. Here are three things to consider before you do.

What you will need

Time: setting a policy on social networking at work takes consultation, but be aware it could take months — if ever — before dynamics change for the better. You'll also need to set aside time every few days to keep up with your workers' communications.

Money: social networking tools are generally free to use, so outright costs are low.

Key message: employees will always want a place to vent, and they probably don't want even well-meaning managers involved. However, good-faith efforts to normalise social media, solicit feedback and encourage candid management assessments may defuse potential social network time bombs without compromising morale.

Step 1: get the lay of the land

Goal: consider social media's place within existing morale management strategies

Management consultants have filled books with advice on managing employee morale, but even employees with the best managers will complain and gossip. If you're not actively engaged in conversations with your workers, you may be surprised to know how they really feel about the way things are going. Regular performance reviews are one opportunity to gather such information, but employees see these assessments as highly formal and may well be reluctant to raise criticisms or offer feedback when they feel they're being judged. Yet that doesn't mean they won't walk out of the meeting and immediately start complaining about you to their Facebook friends.

When they do, word can travel fast: Quantcast figures suggest Facebook receives 83 million visitors per month, and Twitter has exploded from around 1.5 million visitors in November to 15 million generally tertiary-educated, 18-49-year-old visitors by the end of March. Even relatively new boss- and company-rating sites are seeing growth: GlassDoor.com (see Checklist below), for example, saw visits jump from around 40,000 per month in November to 150,000 in March. Others, such as WorkRant.com, have far more modest numbers.

Managers always need thick skins — and doubly so when online forums are involved. Critics find the anonymity of the online arena emboldening, and often take an overly combative stance in their comments. Here are a few random posts found on Twitter just by searching for the word boss: "I don't want a new job, just for the Boss to retire, and go enjoy life...", "Argh! My boss is on Twitter! Goodbye all Tweets about secret office parties when the boss is at the gym!", and the very simple "ugh. The Boss is around".

Take it in stride and think about ways to develop regular, widely available channels for employees to offer constructive feedback rather than simply complaining to anonymous forums. Consider setting up a Twitter feed, Facebook page or MySpace presence and encourage feedback, but always respect employees' boundaries. Your focus shouldn't be on formulating a punitive search-and-destroy mission, but rather on joining the conversation.

Checklist: how to keep tabs on water-cooler gossip

  • Google Alerts: lets you monitor content related to specific topics as it appears online. Set up an alert for your name or company name, for example (remember to enclose multiple words in quotation marks), and you'll get instant, daily or weekly updates as those words pop up in Google's web index, YouTube videos, blogs, and other content.

  • Glassdoor.com, telonu.com, jobvent.com: encourage employees to, as in the case of Telonu.com, "rave, rant, rate your workplace [and] the people there". Mostly directed at CEOs or companies, but these sites are also filled with layoff stories and management complaints. Many rate and rank companies or bosses, and some let you "subscribe" to follow updates from specific people.

  • bossbitching.com, workrant.com, eBossWatch: these sites are more focused on complaints about bosses. Language can be florid and many accounts are anonymous, so these may be mainly academic exercises rather than fonts of actionable information.

  • Twitter: sign up and you can search and view tweets (brief, 140-character mini-blogs) from Twitter's more than 6 million estimated users. Most use real names to make themselves easy to find.

  • Facebook: the hugely popular multimedia update service that links "friends" from around the world. Statistically speaking, many of your employees are already using it regularly to chat with friends and share their thoughts on everything in their lives, whether boss-related or not.

Step 2: get socially savvy

Goal: use social networking to your advantage in managing employee relationships

For years, many employers have responded to social media sites in what many see as a relatively arbitrary manner: by banning them completely. A recent 3 Mobile Australia poll found 55 per cent of Australians said their bosses had banned social networking sites, compared with 20 per cent reporting bans in the UK, 12 per cent in France, 11 per cent in Spain, 10 per cent in Germany and 6 per cent in Italy. A 2007 survey, by security company Sophos, found that 43 per cent of the 600 respondents reported Facebook being blocked by employers.

Such bans have become increasingly difficult to police, however, since companies cannot control workers' use of the services at home or even, with ever more powerful smartphone applications now available, via mobile from the office. Given the proliferation of options for users, forward-looking managers — especially those who genuinely want to identify and resolve morale issues — will want to take a more proactive stance to avoid being lambasted in public, global forums by employees who might nonetheless be reticent to raise issues directly with their supervisors.

This doesn't necessarily mean lifting bans, which can be justified for any number of reasons including productivity — but it does mean actively engaging employees online. The easiest way to do this is to sign up for some of the more popular sites — Twitter, for example — and see what you can find. Start with an employee you know is online (most people use real names), check out their profile and you can see who they are "following" (connected to). Read their updates (Twitter updates are freely available to the public, unless users specify protected updates) or click to follow them on an ongoing basis.

More-progressive employers are leading by example, by joining sites like Facebook and friending their workers who — whether cowed into stunned acceptance or genuinely interested in building an online bond — are likely to accept. People search engine www.yasni.co.uk recently found that 86 per cent of the 1203 surveyed UK residents did not want to be "friends" with their boss — yet almost 80 per cent said they've accepted a Facebook friend request they didn't want to, but felt they had no other choice.

"When our miserable boss who rarely even talks to us in the office adds us as a 'friend'," Yasni CEO Steffen Ruehl says, "it's no wonder people assume they just want to keep tabs on them."

This power can be incredibly useful: many bosses actively use Facebook to keep tabs on employees, often with interesting results such as the call centre worker caught by his HR department feigning a sick day. Remember, however, that employees will know who's in their social network, so it's important not to be seen as overly intrusive (Facebook provides means to block certain "friends" from specific information, but, according to Michael Argast, director of global sales engineering at Sophos, set-up for this can be very involved and the tools are not that easy to find, so many users don't even bother).

If you don't want to be seen as stalking your employees, a more proactive stance may be useful. Set up a Twitter account or a Facebook group to update employees about work-related events — keeping in mind, of course, not to post confidential or company-sensitive information.

Build up a rapport by creating your own personal Facebook page, and you may be surprised at how many employees are happy to involve you. They probably won't rant about you if they know you're listening, but showing genuine concern about their well-being may pay off by removing their need to rant in the first place. As an interesting aside, blogger David Spencer offers employees five reasons why they should friend their boss.

Step 3: Formalise your social networking

Goal: normalise and build policy around use of social networking

Although many social networking tools are still in relative infancy, rapid adoption is certain to see corporate versions emerge, just as happened with instant messaging several years ago. Companies in many industries — for example, Asia/Pacific banking institutions — are already formalising policies for using social media for customer outreach, and inward-facing initiatives hold equal promise. For its part, analyst house IDC believes enterprise social networking has passed its inflection point and will be a $1.3 billion market by 2012.

Once the opportunity is defined, it's up to each manager to decide how to utilise social media for good — and as a way to provide employees with alternatives to the ranting and character assassination that many sites encourage. The key is to set an example from the get-go. "Bringing these technologies inside the firewall means you can introduce them to staff in the context of acceptable business use," says James Dellow, senior consultant with social media consultancy Headshift.

"This doesn't mean there are no fun conversations going on. The barriers to entry are so very low that it's mainly an issue of how you manage them. You've got to introduce them now just in a controlled way, but in a managed way — encouraging people to adopt these work practices and adding on the social, conversational layer."

As with all new technologies, it's critical to clarify employees' rights and responsibilities. Are they expected to restrict access to such services during work hours? Will they be actively monitored for potential disciplinary action? Are there clear rules about employees sharing company-sensitive information online? What recourse is available for handling complaints?

Updating your corporate handbook to include policies on social media is essential to address liability concerns and normalise the use of social media tools within the company. Resources like this, this and this offer guidance for the exposure and best-practice policies you may want to consider.

Clarifying expectations from the beginning will go a long way towards more productive employee relationships; many may not even be aware of the existing channels they have for complaints. Work with senior management, line-of-business managers, and Human Resources advisors to frame social networking services within other existing policies — or to formulate totally new ones, with an eye on harnessing their benefits as well as setting limits on employees.

After all, no one wants to end up like the CEO of US interactive agency Tocquigny, who was rudely awakened to the dangers when a visiting client asked about the CEO's dealings with a competitor (dealings that an employee had mentioned in a Twitter post).

One issue to be particularly aware of is privacy. Since today's social media tools are freely available and published online, it's incumbent to use their privacy features, where applicable, to restrict access to content. In any case, start small and work up from there: you might, for example, set up private Facebook groups or closed Twitter feeds (which are only open to approved members) to promote social activities, or as a medium for disseminating company announcements. To avoid aimless, libellous ranting in public forums, you might set up a confidential complaints channel or encourage people to send issues directly to you.

None of this means your employees will suddenly become better sharers and love their jobs. However, by normalising use of social media tools within the business, you can create an opportunity to identify and act upon issues early. If more casual feedback mechanisms can help one person speak up earlier, you may be able to avert a painful workplace situation — and find a way to keep a valuable employee who might otherwise walk.

"There are some real business issues that, if they weren't exposed through these social networks, managers might not know about them," says Dellow. "You might get people who are happy about things and will say so in a survey, but people who are disgruntled and about to move to another job won't say anything."

Why not turn the social media information stream to your advantage? Setting up an internal company idea farm on Facebook, for example, will not only help you keep in touch with what's on employees' minds, but it can also be an important way to involve staffers and ensure that their voices are heard. Here's how to get one started:

  1. In the menu bar, choose "Settings" and drop down to "Application Settings".
  2. Choose "Groups"
  3. Click the button at the top of the screen "Create a New Group"
  4. Enter the name of the group, the network and the other required information (the description might be "A place to exchange ideas on how to do things better at Acme"). Click "Create Group".
  5. Information on the next page is self-explanatory, but make special note of the "Access" choices toward the bottom of the page — these allow you to set who sees and can join the group.
  6. Click "Save"
  7. The next screen allows you to select those you'd like to invite to the group from your list of friends (if others in the organisation hear about the group, they can still ask you for permission to join).
  8. After that, it's simply a matter of adding news to the group, and perhaps stimulating response from members by asking for ideas on where to hold the company Christmas party, for example.

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