Many of the concerns about social media I discussed this week with clients during Symposium centered on the issue of opening up employee communication. There is a perception that if organizations allow their employees to “speak freely” then a throng of negative comments will be unleashed. After multiple discussions on this subject, I suspect we are missing the real issue underlying this concern. While the problem is phrased as “what if they say something untoward” the thornier issue is “how are we going to handle it if they do?”
Red Herring: an expression referring to the tactic of diverting attention from the real issue. It supposedly derives from a method of training hunting dogs.
Most managers receive training on how to deal with work related topics such as delivering performance appraisals or budget planning. These are important, but they deal with the mechanics of getting work done and the outward actions that affect performance. However, if an employee posts inappropriate material on a social media site — it could be the disclosure of confidential client information or the use of not-so-good-for-business language — their manager may feel uncomfortable confronting the employee and coaching them about why the post violates policy. On the surface this seems similar to other circumstances when managers need to advise employees, but it borders on the personal. And to make matters worse, it involves a medium with which the manager may not be familiar if they are not social media devotees themselves. The conclusion I’ve come is that the real problem to be solved is how to give managers the skills needed to confront and counsel employees on this sensitive subject.
The good news is that there is precedent for dealing with these types of personal issues. One client pointed out that this reminded her of the training her company created to help managers counsel employees on appropriate workplace dress codes (perhaps that halter top was not the best fashion choice for the office). Yes, one’s style of dress is a matter of personal choice but it has business ramifications. Some employees need guidance from their managers about selecting appropriate workplace attire. Expressing opinions on social media is similar in that blog posts, tweets and comments should let the individual’s personality emerge. Nonetheless, if the employee is interacting on social media as part of their work activities, they must consider their employer’s image and brand, as well as the outcomes of their communication.
When a person “signs on” as an employee, they are expected to adhere to the policies of their employer. They become a representative of the company. Some actions they take blur into the personal realm but still have business implications. Conversations about what works in the workplace and what doesn’t are difficult and so some managers avoid them. The better approach is to recognize the need for some new additions to the manager’s “bag of tricks” and address this training need head on. Just as employees need guidance on their responsibilities when participating on social media, managers need tips on how to deal with employees that step outside the bounds of propriety.
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