The Social Networking Conundrum: A Human Resource Perspective


At one time, some people predicted that Social Networking sites (like Facebook, Twitter and Linked In) would just be a fad. Now, it is estimated that 13 million Canadians engage in social networking online. In addition, an N-Gen People Performance 2009 Survey revealed that 66% of employed Canadians visit social networking sites while at their place of work. Despite this, an August 2009 study by U.S. research firm, NFI Research showed that 88% of senior executives and managers have a neutral or low level of confidence that their organization had an effective plan for using social networking for business.

From a strategic HR perspective, social networking offers businesses solid benefits coupled by some very real concerns. How do you decide what your organization’s stance on Social Networking sites should be?

Just a few ways businesses can benefit from Social Networking include:

  • Building new business through increased awareness of your organization.
  • Increased employee collaboration.
  • Improved innovation/creativity through idea sharing & brainstorming.
  • Ability to strengthen relationships with workers at remote locations.
  • More rapid orientation for new employees.
  • Vehicle for recognizing the accomplishments of star performers.
  • Increased ability to attract and retain Generation Y workers.
  • Valuable enhancement to employee mentorship programs.

The use of Social Networking sites at work also prompts some very real concerns:

  • Privacy/confidentiality/legal problems.
  • Potential decreases to productivity.
  • Public relations problems if information posted on sites is damaging to the firm’s reputation.
  • Potential problems with online bullying and discriminatory remarks, both externally and within the organization.
  • Posting of false or misleading information.
  • In extreme cases, use of SNS may be addictive.

Protect Your Firm with the Basics

Unfortunately, any organization without an official, well-communicated Social Networking Policy is at risk of the above-mentioned drawbacks. (see the article “Social Networking – Policies,” in this issue).

Even if a firm hasn’t yet decided whether to allow the use of Social Networking sites at work, it may wish to modify its Employee Manual to ensure it is protected. Sections on Confidentiality should specifically prohibit the posting of confidential or private information on Social Networking sites. Specific references to Social Networking site usage should be added to sections on Harassment/Abuse and Discrimination. References to Social Networking can also be added to confidentiality agreements. Firms may also wish to prohibit employees from using work email address on site profile pages (i.e. for sites that are not used mainly for business such as Linked In).

Consider Your Corporate Culture

Organizations need to consider how Social Networking site usage fits with their corporate culture. Employers seeking to brand their organization as technology-responsive and those seeking to attract and retain younger workers should consider this decision especially seriously.

Review SNS Use in the Hiring Process

Organizations need to decide on their company policy regarding using Social Networking sites to screen potential hires and communicate search results.

Decisions for Those Who Allow Social Networking Use

If an employer does decide to allow Social Networking site use at work, it should also consider which sites it will allow, how much usage is reasonable and whether or not to set specific times of day for site access (e.g. lunch and coffee breaks). These are a few of the more important decisions to make.

Ban? Monitor? Or Reinvent?

Firms considering banning SNS use at work may want to ask whether, in their firm such an action would drive SNS use “underground”. Employers considering monitoring employee’s use of Social Networking sites at work will also have to balance employee privacy.

Some large organizations are now developing their own Social Networking sites, internal to the organization. This is like taking an intranet to the next level. The goal is to obtain the benefits of SNS use, such as reducing silos in an organization, while minimizing the risk of external SNS usage.

Clearly, whether to allow Social Networking site usage at work is not a simple question. Whatever an organization decides, its Social Networking Policy should be documented, fully communicated to employees, and managers should be briefed on how to deal with potential incidents. Further, because this technology is evolving rapidly, employers are advised to revisit their Social Networking Policy annually.

The Fifth Option Consulting Inc. has 20 years of experience helping organizations run more profitably through effective human resource management. The Fifth Option offers clients a cost effective way to obtain strategic HR expertise customized to their needs.