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business/ organizational communication, collaboration, social media

social media and the HR conundrum

The potential for social media as internal communication is enormous.  When people start talking to each other, they can break through the information silos that create duplicative work.  It allows them to take advantage of work already done and unleash their creativity because there’s bedrock out there, and they can use it, if they have built communities within the organization that exploit those commonalities and leverage them to the benefit of the company.

The first instinct in the business world when social media exploded was to fence it off from the working environment by blocking the sites.  Organizations that had more sense simply monitored it.  Now, most businesses that actually attempt to implement social media as internal organizational communication feel they must hedge their bets.  While the “rat factor” provides jobs for some–after all, SOMEone has to troll the site to make sure that no one is posting to the detriment of the company, right?–it’s much like shooting social media’s potential in both knees and then asking it to keep walking.

The problem, of course, being that organizations, when they ask themselves “what’s the worst that can happen,” end up with nightmarish scenarios.  Part of that issue is that the advice for what can happen comes from Human Resources… and HR’s purpose, while ostensibly to get the best people hired for the business and encourage their growth within the company, is actually to save the company from litigation and protect the company from the depredations of those it has hired. That is the first part of the HR conundrum.

I’m not trying to go all Miss Mary Sunshine on you and say that every single employee is wholly dedicated to the company and not going to go “reply all” on you.  [“Going Reply All” being the e-mail version of “Going Postal”.  I just made it up, and I’m kind of proud of it.]  The very elements in social media that attract people to these sites are the ones that the Human Resources component feels they must control and define.

However, the presentation of identification through the image of self is paramount to the social media process.  I realized this recently when I, among many, many others, placed our mother’s picture up as our Facebook image a week ahead of time to celebrate Mother’s Day.  Not only did I not know who anyone else was, I was struggling to post as myself, rather than an extension of my mother.  We depend on those images to know who we are, as well as other people.  Businesses that insist on badge photos or official company photos as online representations are missing out on how the images make people feel about themselves.  It forces the issue that, while on a company intranet or social media network, the only identity allowed is the  company one, and few of us are comfortable with that as our sole identity.

The other element of social media, the “rat factor,” has potential for a weapon in a business setting.  On Facebook, if someone reports a post, the Facebook monitors supposedly look at it, delete it if it violates their terms, and send a message saying “don’t do that.”  At work, a similar report can mean your job.  My sentiment on that particular subject is that, if the employee is oblivious enough to post a picture of themselves at a drunken debauch as their professional identity image, they may not be the person that I want to continue working for my company.

Here’s the rest of the HR conundrum.  Everything that makes that person an individual (ethnicity, interests, image, gender, etc.) lands in the danger zone of company liability.  Anything that is dangerous must be controlled and carefully defined.  However, by controlling that expression of self, the organization’s need for social media to encourage the de-siloization of the company is crippled.

My advice–go ahead and use the social media solution that you’re trying to establish for internal communication, stop putting fences around it, and use the fallout as beneficial to the company.  Allow people to say what they need to say, post pictures of themselves as themselves, and develop their social networks within the company.  Be very clear when you put out the rules that if they post something that is unacceptable, they may be under fire for inappropriate expression in a business environment.

With the rules in place, once your people are invested in your social media as the 21st century water cooler, you have given them the ability to feel closer, more human, more creative, and most importantly, more invested in the future of your company–by facilitating the growth of their identification with groups within the company, you’ve made it possible for them to identify with the company overall, and it suddenly becomes completely personal to them whether the company succeeds or fails.

Don’t fence social media off from its potential by making it just another company newsletter that no one will read because it’s simply seen as propaganda.

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About Lisa

Senior Communications Consultant - exploring and blogging about the 2nd generation of business communication - social networking in the professional world. How to keep what's best from first gen communication and attain the best from Business Communication 2.0.

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