Social Media in the Workplace – Working or Networking?

23rd January 2015

2003: LinkedIn – 2003: Myspace – 2004: YouTube – 2005: Facebook – 2005: Twitter – 2010: Instagram – 2011: Google+ …

It seems that every few years a new social network pops up. A few of them reach levels of ubiquity that make them as important as email, the press, TV and phones when it comes to disseminating information. And yet, over a decade since LinkedIn became the go-to network for business networking, business is still confused when it comes to the use of social media in the workplace.

It’s not hard to see why. For every benefit social media brings to a company and its employees, there’s a related horror story that scares them away from it. We’re not talking here about companies having a social media presence – that’s pretty a much a given nowadays, and plenty of companies are using social media to assist their marketing and PR efforts. We’re talking about employees themselves using their personal social media accounts during work time.


The Downside

First, let’s look at the worries that give companies the jitters when it comes to allowing staff to tweet and look at Facebook during office hours.

It’s a timewaster

The main perception is that it wastes time. Employees checking their feeds, watching videos and inevitably following links are not, at that moment, being productive.

It’s a distraction

At best it can mean that employees are more interested in sharing the latest post or doing online games and quizzes than doing their work. At worst, this lack of interest can lead to costly mistakes.

It risks the leakage of sensitive information

People tend to tweet what they’re up to, what they’re eating and where they are. This can inadvertently lead to giving away more than the company would like to. Tweeting “I’m on the train to Basingstoke” could betray the fact that you’re pitching to a company. Sharing photos of the office might give away computer screens, paperwork or flip charts that contain confidential information.

People can use the platform to complain about the company

Generally speaking, people like to moan about their jobs. While it’s traditionally been shared with friends and spouses, technology now lets employees share their gripes with the world. The always-on nature of social media means that there’s no cooling-off period, which means people will often go public with something they wouldn’t if they had had a little contemplation time.

It can lead to malware infecting company computers

Hopefully all employers will have strong anti-malware measures in place to protect their confidential information such as client files, personnel information and internal documentation. But social media is an easy platform on which to spread malware, as new viruses can dodge security measures.

It can hog bandwidth

If every employee has a computer with a few social networks open and streaming new posts, plus phones using WiFi to do the same, the result can be a significant amount of bandwidth constantly pouring in and out of the company. But if employees have a taste for watching streaming videos, especially now that HD is pretty standard, bandwidth can skyrocket, slowing down connectivity and increasing costs.

Offensive or derogatory comments can reflect badly

Allowing staff to post on social networks can cause trouble when they make racist, sexist, homophobic, libellous or otherwise unsavoury comments. For a start, it could cause internal problems, just as would be the case if an employee made the comments to someone’s face. But if an employee makes such a comment in public and they are clearly associated with your company, the issue could land in your inbox. Social media users can turn on companies like a pack of dogs if they smell blood, and there have been cases of crowds calling on companies to sack staff members who have posted inappropriate content online.

The Upside

Social media wouldn’t have attracted billions of users if it didn’t have some redeeming features. In fact, there are many. And what works for people (connections, assistance, self-promotion, entertainment, staying updated) surely also works for companies. Don’t forget that it’s the people who work for you that make the company what it is. If you’ve got talented individuals working for you, why not let them broadcast their talents far and wide? Some of their kudos is bound to reflect on you.

There are also some other benefits to letting your staff use social media in in the workplace.

It can help productivity

Just as smokers are less irritable and more enthusiastic if they’re allowed to succumb to their cravings every so often, so are social media addicts. During times of breaking news or when something important is happening in the family, do you think their minds will be completely on the job if they’re forbidden from quickly checking their updates every twenty minutes?

It enhances mutual trust

Banning social media in the workplace sends a clear message: you don’t trust your staff. Like intercepting their emails and monitoring their comfort breaks, it might be within your employer’s rights to do this to staff, but whether they should do it is another matter. It’s the sort of policy that might appear to enhance productivity but which can backfire when it leads to increased staff churn. Employees who feel they are trusted feel more like part of the company and are more willing to go the extra mile for it.

Some jobs require regular external updates

You don’t have to be a news broadcaster to have an ongoing need for fresh information. All trades benefit from being kept informed about developments in their industry, and social media is the ideal way to stay abreast of them. But also, many jobs do require a regular link with the outside world. Anyone in marketing, PR, law or politics will recognise this. Having a social media feed brings up-to-the-minute news to the desktop, and being a contributor helps enhance relationships and value.

It can be used as an advertising channel

The average twitter user has about 200 followers, although it’s not unusual for non-famous individuals to have 500 or even 1000. Imagine the reach you’d get if you encouraged 20 staff members to occasionally tweet nice things about your company. Of course, banning them from Twitter except when you want them to tweet for you wouldn’t exactly endear you to the staff, so a little quid pro quo could essentially get you some free advertising.

It enhances networking

The clue is in the name: “social network”. Companies that treat their staff as assets to the company and not as disposable drones can benefit exponentially from the connections that their staff make. Thanks to the concept of degrees of separation, even small companies can use their staff’s presence on social media to reach out to potential experts, suppliers and employees. Networking is essential to stop companies from stagnating through limited contact with outsiders. Paranoia tends not to be the best network lubricant.

A Social Media Policy: The Best Compromise?

Social media communication

Given the pros and cons of a free-rein policy when it comes to allowing employees to use their social media at work, there does seem to be an optimum solution – compromise. That’s why many organisations are (at last) drafting social media usage guidelines and incorporating them into their contracts and employee’s handbooks.

It’s important to differentiate between guidelines for official corporate social media accounts and the use of personal accounts. The former is partly a marketing and PR matter – how to represent the company publicly – but is also a codification of your legal obligations when making any public comment on behalf of the organisation. An example of a policy would be the Department for Work and Pensions, which has published its guidelines for maximum understanding:

But the latter type of guideline – for employees’ personal accounts – is more contentious. The idea that an employer can have control over a person’s expression of views rankles with some, who see it as a violation of basic human rights. But of course, any employee who bad-mouths his or her employer or brings its name into disrepute should expect some kind of disciplinary action, right up to dismissal or legal action. That concept exists both online and off; the means of delivery is secondary.

When it comes to criticising the company or otherwise lowering its image, it doesn’t matter whether the social media post was made during office hours or from the armchair at home. It’s the content that matters.

So let’s have a look at some potential compromise solutions that can form the basis of official social media guidelines in the workplace.

Timewasting and distraction

A certain amount of time on social media every day/week. The amount of time may be determined by the nature of the job. If SM being used to keep in touch with friends and family, then an amount of time similar to that allowed for cigarette or coffee breaks would be appropriate. If keeping up with the industry or general news and views is essential to the functioning of the company, it’s hard to justify anything less than constant SM monitoring (some of which will inevitably be personal).

Sensitive information

The disclosure of sensitive information is covered by normal employment contracts. Employees are usually bound by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and they can fall foul of them by not taking reasonable care to prevent the dissemination of sensitive information. This would include purposely or accidentally spreading information that could be used by competitors, by whatever means. It would be a good idea to reiterate the NDA in a social media policy, but it should be covered anyway.

Harming the company’s reputation

It’s very easy to send a tweet or post an update on Facebook or LinkedIn, and in the heat of the moment, employees might well resort to using such a channel to air their complaints at a manager or the company. Due to the ease of access of the social media, it’s unlikely that any kind of ban will supersede this instinct – blocking the pages on the company network won’t stop people using their mobile phone connection to do it. Again, companies can exercise their right to refer to contracts and discipline staff who publicly complain.


It’s highly unlikely that social media themselves will host malware, but there is a risk that clicking links will expose the company. New viruses that haven’t been recognised by anti-malware providers are the most dangerous, and social media would appear to be the perfect vectors. Training staff about their responsibility and about only clicking trusted links would be a start. But if they have access to the internet and email, they should be trained anyway, so again, the risk should already be addressed elsewhere.

Hogging bandwidth

There is no doubt that if everyone is constantly watching HD movies on the company network, internet speed and bandwidth will suffer. Realistically, this will not happen though. Monitoring how much people are actually working and comparing their output with their hours should be incentive enough to limit usage. If someone is claiming to be working when they are watching videos, this is a disciplinary matter. If they are declaring their usage and it’s affecting their output, they will probably be in breach of their contracts. It is not necessarily a social media issue.

Causing offence

The libel laws are complicated, but there are enough grey areas to make reasonable people think twice before saying anything. Is it offensive to make fun of Liverpool Football Club? What about Liverpool the city? And how about Liverpudlians themselves? Where does a bit of banter stray into language that can cause genuine outrage? These are the questions that perplex companies and cause them to place limits on social media users. Nobody wants to alienate or upset their clients, and something as simple as an employee saying uncomfortable things (even if they are true) about individuals or their beliefs and tastes can make companies nervous.

Some companies combat this by insisting that social media users’ personal accounts make no reference whatsoever to where they work. They would be able to say no more than what their profession is, unless even that would give away the identity of the employer. The rule applies to users’ profiles and the comments they make. That way, offensive comments will not be attributable to the company – not straight away, anyway.

It’s hard to say anything that doesn’t upset someone, and should a particularly vitriolic social media storm start, it’s likely that the perpetrator’s identity and employment details could get out. Obviously, racist, sexist, anti-faith, threatening, bullying or homophobic comments could be classified as hate speech and could be punishable by law.

But borderline jibes that cause offense and come back to haunt the employer could be grounds for discipline if the intention to offend is there. It would need to be spelt out in a contract, though. There is no law against making offensive comments – comedians do it all the time – as long as they don’t fall under the protected groups, and companies would be best advised to remind employees that any comment that adversely affects them could be grounds for discipline.

It’s not a new phenomenon

Unfortunately in the last decade of social media’s illustrious existence, there are dozens of examples of people posting inappropriate material on social media. For example:

  • The teacher who posted a picture of herself smoking marijuana.
  • The communications executive who posted a racist comment as she boarded a plane; the post went viral while she had her phone switched off and by the time she landed in Africa she had been fired.
  • The waiter who complained about his uniform on Twitter.
  • The American waiter who tweeted that a TV star had left without paying the bill; when the bill was settled he tweeted that there was no tip.
  • The firefighter who made sexist remarks about women’s place being in the kitchen.

All of the above were fired, and there are countless other examples. You could say that there’s something Darwinistic about Twitter in that it helps you root out the ones genetically predisposed to foolishness … but on the other hand, everyone makes mistakes.

There are also cases of employers having a little more compassion for their employees and letting them keep their jobs, perhaps after a little guidance. Ultimately, if a member of staff is so valuable as to be irreplaceable, you’ll no doubt find a way to forgive them unless they’ve broken the law.

… But it probably won’t affect you

You no doubt devote a good deal of energy to recruiting the most capable and trustworthy employees, and the idea that they are suddenly going to turn toxic the moment they are allowed on social media might be pushing things a little. The scare stories listed above are well known because they are unusual. How many of the employees hated their jobs anyway and weren’t enthusiastic or productive members of staff?

Also, how many of them are related directly to posting on social media while at work? One or two, perhaps. In essence, the idea of allowing social media at work is largely moot. It’s what they say, not when they say it that matters.

Millions of social media users are managing to hold down jobs without bringing themselves or their employers into disrepute, and without sending their companies to collapse. A little trust and some sound guidelines might just improve morale and work wonders for your company.