Repost IBM Insights Blog: Food for Thought: Social Trust

I recently started writing for the IBM Insights blog As part of a team of Redbook Residency bloggers. The aim is to write about anything having to do with Social Business or Social Media. To keep track and a personal log of it all I will regularly repost the blogs I write for the Insights blog on my personal blog as well.

Original Publication:
Original publication date: March 9th 2012

Food for Thought: Social Trust
Femke Goedhart, Business Consultant, Silverside

Social media use is everywhere. With more than 800 million users on Facebook, more than 225 million Twitter accounts, Google+ rapidly gaining on the competition, and countless other platforms popping up left and right, it’s hard to ignore. But how do you control your people going online and using social media and are you even allowed to?!? That is a question that more and more companies are asking themselves nowadays.

Personal versus professional
Traditionally the division between personal and professional life was something that was strictly observed. What you did at home had little to do with what you did in the office and vice versa. People who walked around in suits all day could go out partying at night without any of their colleagues ever knowing it.
Social media is changing that. The traditional borders between personal and professional life are fading with people engaged in social media posting pictures, tweeting and Facebooking about all aspects of their lives — often, even mixing their professional and private social networks together. It is forcing companies to search for ways to handle their “social exposure.” But it’s not an easy topic.
The main reason for this is the cross over into the personal domain. What rights do copanies have to restrict people in their personal life?
But it’s not just in the personal domain that there are limits to what a company can restrict. The element of freedom of speech and common law limit what can be restricted in professional life also. This was recently highlighted when the US National Labor Relations Board started a review of cases in which social media had played a role in firing employees. A large number of these cases turned out to be about overly broad social media policies infringing on the protected conserted activities rights of employees.

Taking control
So how do you (if at all) control what is being said? Well, the first step is in recognizing that it is going on. Companies that think ””my people don’t tweet” are in denial. Social media is gaining popularity everywhere and not just with the younger generation. More and more people 35 and older are joining in the conversation on one or more social platforms. Sometimes just to follow what their friends or kids are doing but often simply because they are interested themselves.
The second step is to figure out what it is you want to prevent.
Forbidding it outright isn’t really an option because that infringes on personal rights and reaches deep into the personal life of employees. Forbidding social activities in the professional realm is disputable as shown above, but most of all it can have serious downdrafts.
For instance: If you meet your hairdresser at the grocery store and greet her but she ignores you completely, because her boss told her not to engage in any conversation with customers outside the work environment, then you would be offended and would probably not return to that hairdresser’s shop again.
So why would you want to get that same effect with your employees being social? Customers are just as likely to be on social media, and restricting your employees from interacting with them might make them seem aloof and arrogant, which in turn would look bad for your company.

Restricting the already restricted
Another major aspect to consider is the employee contract. Any self-respecting company will have clauses in its employee contracts restricting employees from performing acts detrimental to the company. The same applies for non-disclosure clauses. So in fact, most of the things social media policies try to restrict are things that are already restricted.
Does that make them obsolete? Not necessarily. There does seem to be a need to re-enforce restrictions as employees are having trouble distinguishing between their professional and personal “social” life and forgetting about responsibilities. The question though is if that really needs to be in the form of another restrictive contract or policy type document. Sometimes, just reminding them of their responsibilities should be enough.

Guideline versus policy
So the question is whether having a social media policy is really the answer. An interesting shift is that some companies are now moving off the idea of banning social media through policies and opting for embracing social media through guidelines. This is based on trust and respect for the employees’ ability to act responsibly, and the implicit assumption that most employees really don’t want to do harm to their own company but do want to engage in social media.
Enforcing the positive behavior the company would like to see instead of discouraging misbehavior is the goal. This is an interesting shift because it means that instead of thinking of the employees’ social media exposure simply as a threat, it now can become an asset.
It does also mean accepting that people will sometimes mess up, which is human. So, telling people how to react in those situations should be a part of the process, as shown in the following excerpt from the IBM Social Computing Guidelines:

“Be the first to respond to your own mistakes. If you make an error, be up front about your mistake and correct it quickly, as this can help to restore trust, but make it clear that you have done so.”

It speaks of respect when companies feel confidence enough in their people to trust them to act wisely.

Take the lead
Don’t ignore what is going on. With social media not likely to go away any time soon, it is better to start identifying its opportunities instead of simply focusing on the risks. Acknowledge the role it is playing and start training the employees in how to use it responsibly.