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Employee Expression on Social Media – Red Herring or Real Problem?

by Carol Rozwell  |  October 22, 2010  |  4 Comments

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.


Tags: change-management  social-media  

Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Employee Expression on Social Media – Red Herring or Real Problem?

  1. Brian Hellauer says:

    Hands down cutest graphic in GBN history…

  2. Ian Gotts says:

    A great blog which starts to get the debate beyond the sm-hype.

    Fortune ran a great article with some differing experiences of employees launching into Social Media with or without their comapny’s permission . It makes both inspiring and sobering reading

    Nimbus Partners has embraced social media and takes the approach that this is just another form of communication. We are actively encouraging people to take part. Internally using Chatter (from Salesforce) and externally. And we are coaching them so it becomes easier and less painful.

    Why should I worry about what employees write any more than what they say at the next dinner party? The challenge is getting everyone to understand the company values, direction and approach so they keep on message. So.. KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

    For Nimbus it is easy. Our vision is “Making work easier, faster and more valuable for millions of people” which underpins WHY we do what we do. WHAT we do is provide a process management solution enabling end users to do the right things. HOW we do it is provide software and services.

    See how easy it is when you go WHY, WHAT, HOW rather than the other way?

  3. […] Carol Rozwell of Gartner summarised the discussion at Gartner Symposium beautifully in her blog.   She has got the debate out of the sm-hype, the PR, AR and marketing department and down to […]

  4. […] a recent blog post, I discussed the need to give managers tools and training so they can coach employees in the […]

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