By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. Do you have a policy or guideline that outlines the proper use of social media at the workplace? If so, how do you define the workplace? If you don’t, do you let everybody tweet, like, comment and share away and hope for the best? Are you, like many other employers, worried about the damage that could be caused to your brand by irate or dismissed employees? And what about potential cyber bullying between colleagues – how do you deal with that?
A shift from water-cooler wars to twitter torrents
The potential for conflict has moved beyond the brawl around the water-cooler, and into the virtual abyss of Twitter & Co. There is no denying that workplace communication has moved heavily into the virtual space: we invent, comment, inform and share via internal cloud-based chat rooms and social media channels. This change is accelerated by the so-called Millennials (a bit of a misused and often misunderstood term grouping together everyone born between the early 1980s and 2004) who grew up in a computerised and always connected world.
While managing young teams, I had to learn that I would often achieve better output if I communicated with them via internal communication channels such as Slack, Yammer or Skype. It seems that emoticons and abbreviations such as LOL have replaced the use of an emotive and expressive use of the written or spoken language. I don’t think that this change is bad; and it makes no sense to go against the tides of time. But there is certainly always merit in taking the best from two or more worlds in order to create a solution to a challenge.
The shift to virtual workplace communication brings with it a slow deterioration of so-called soft skills: fair negotiation, active listening, empathy, assertiveness, conflict resolution skills and communication etiquette, to name a few. With the loss of these skills, anger and frustration are carried into the online space. The blame-game and finger-pointing moves from open conflict around the meeting table to cyber bullying and badmouthing. This will affect both company and individuals negatively, unless certain mechanisms are in place, such as: a conflict resolution process; communication and ethics training; collaborative spaces and opportunities.
What is your social media culture, guideline and policy?
There is an opportunity to grow your brand’s reputation by having employees act as ambassadors by sharing workplace culture and vision with a much wider audience. There are however also pitfalls. Employees associating themselves with a brand may attach their own personal views to it, especially if they are using their own private social media channels. And those views may conflict with what the brand stands for. Some employees may even bring the company in disrepute; be it because they are unhappy in how they are treated; in how their bosses behave; or with their salaries. It may even be the boss herself who badmouths an employee on her Facebook account. It’s so easy to vent anger and frustration online – but there is no hiding away in the cyber fibre. Just because an angry post is made online, doesn’t mean its author is virtual and that there is disassociation.
What do you have in place at your work that helps resolve hidden, brooding or rising conflict? Do you have a grievance procedure, an independent mediator on-call, or core staff trained in conflict resolution? There are ways to deal with the issue of social media mis-use. Strict rules alone will not do; but neither will an open-minded workplace culture on its own. After all, we are all human, and one or more of us will always rebel.
If we only have rules and policies, we instill top-down management, fear, and friction. In order to have everyone’s participation, a cultural shift is needed. To only have the cultural shift and hope for the best, may however also turn out to be risky, especially in the face of strong human emotions (for instance in the case of a dismissal of an employee, workplace discrimination or someone being under investigation for alleged misconduct).
4 lifelines to deal with social media reputation damage
The foundation for any environment low in conflict is based on an “open door policy”, on shared cultural values, on strong participatory leadership, on a transparent growth path, awards and incentives; and on processes and people that deal with grievances. When it comes to the public image of a brand and/or an individual, it is however wise to build onto this foundation by creating a policy or rule-book that outlines how to play together nicely. In my 18-years spent at various companies and organisations, I have seen anything from strict rules to no rules at all.
Here are some considerations relating to how you could tackle the question of social media use, and how complex it may become. While the discussion in this article is mainly about reputation and conflict handling, the following of course also touches on the question of workplace distraction, productivity and the use of private equipment during company time:
Consider blocking/ fire-walling all access to social networks at work (and prohibit the use of private phone devices, or disable internet connection). However, to apply such strict measures may bring with it resistance and resentment at the workplace; and additionally, some studies have found that productivity increases at workplaces where employees are allowed to occasionally distract themselves via social media.
Do not block or firewall anything; but instill a culture of mutual respect, of responsibility and maturity. Built on that, create a code of conduct that is drafted collaboratively, and reviews everyone’s input. This code may tackle anything from the use of social media when at work, outside of the workplace, communication etiquette, anti-discrimination rules, risk management, monitoring, privacy concerns, emergency social media communication, how to deal with sensitive information/ intellectual property, copyright and reference laws, measurements taken against misconduct and perhaps even an internal, anonymous online grievance channel.
3) Where is your workplace, exactly?
What is the definition of your workplace when it comes to reputation management? Perhaps expand your workplace definition (in connection with your social media code of conduct) to anywhere and anytime as that is the nature of social media communication. So the code of conduct or policy may outline that “no matter where you use it, or on what channel or device or through whose account, you may not bring the company into disrepute, and you may not discriminate against anyone whether it’s based on race, gender, ability, education, origin, sexual orientation etc”.
4) Who manages and monitors social media activity?
Do you just have one person or team manage your social media channels? Or nobody? You may have a dedicated Social Media Manager or Coordinator, but you may also find ways to include everyone in your company to contribute to creating a good image of what you do, and how you do it, collaboratively. Rather than have everyone tapping away on their mobile phones under their desks or in the bathroom, or even openly on company-owned workstations, get them to use their social media skills to benefit the brand and its people. It will be wise to install monitoring mechanisms, and to encourage correct spelling. If you have strict publishing plans for your brand, consider having “open windows” during which anyone may post to a selection of channels.
Word of mouth can both grow and kill a brand. We have always and will always refer events and stories to others; from sitting around the fires in our caves to chatting to friends over an after-work drink. But with the advance of social media, WOM has been accelerated almost beyond control, and the potential for damage is magnified by the fact that social media content spreads to limitless spaces; it is also recorded, and can easily be shared.
So – have you started drafting your social media code of conduct yet?
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