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Social media in HR: leader, laggard or conscript?

As a confirmed social media enthusiast – some might say evangelist – I am occasionally asked to speak about the subject, often to people considered to be sceptics (or “laggards” to use the slightly disparaging term best known as part of the Technology Adoption Cycle). I tend to close with a quote from Erik Qualman in his book “Socialnomics” which sums up my personal view perfectly:

We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media. The choice is how well we do it“.

This is as true of organisations as it is of individuals. I struggle to understand why an organisation, particularly a customer-facing one, wouldn’t want to engage with social media in 2015. In my daily social media use, I see fantastic examples where companies such as Virgin Trains and Tesco are really adding value to their relationships with their customers through their responsiveness on social media. As a result, I believe that we, as HR professionals, have a duty to our organisations to understand this stuff as best we can and to move managers (and fellow HR folk) away from the “quick, ban it” mentality.

When Facebook first started to take hold in the early 2000s, the organisation I was working for was shocked to discover that the social networking site topped our internet usage stats, receiving twice as much traffic as the next most-used website. I argued long and hard that this was a management issue and a blanket ban would be counterproductive but I lost the argument and a ban was ordered. Then of course the smartphone became widely available and, as comprehensively as you can block the use of a website on corporate IT systems, there’s not an awful lot you can do about how people use their personal devices and their data allowance. To me, that illustrated the folly of a draconian approach: however difficult you make it for people to do the stuff they want or like to do, they will find a way around it. And even if they don’t, technology will soon enable one.

So what are we worried about? In my experience, concerns usually fall into several camps.

1. Staff will waste time on social media
By doing what exactly? OK, so sharing cat pictures isn’t exactly going to help your company’s bottom line directly but if the member of staff is then cheery in their next interaction with a customer, so what? Of course, excessive use of social media to the exclusion of people doing their job is an issue that needs tackling – but in HR we’ve been dealing with smoking breaks, lingering around the water cooler and unusually frequent visits to the bathroom for a long time. Like all of those things, it’s a management issue (no, my views haven’t changed!). It’s our duty to make work as interesting and engaging as possible – and manage it appropriately – rather than browbeat people into compliance.

2. Staff will say or do something stupid on social media
Well I’m afraid that’s a given. People do or say stupid stuff every single day of every single week. Hell, I know I do. What constitutes stupid depends on your organisation, sector and the individuals in question. It was interesting to see the reaction to a recent situation in which a sales executive for BMW happened to tweet (in a somewhat inappropriately laddish tone, it has to be said) to his couple of hundred of followers about a women who breastfed her baby in the showroom that day. Because his profile included the name of his employer, their corporate account received quite a lot of tweets suggesting that his attitudes needed, er, updating.

But people have been doing or saying stupid stuff since time began. Yes, social media gives stupid things more exposure, but remember Gerald Ratner (those of you under a certain age will need to Google him)? He more or less single handedly brought down his (own) business with an ill-chosen remark. Will the “scandal” of BMW’s sales exec’s clumsy description of a breastfeeding woman cost them even one car sale? I seriously doubt it. Most social media scandals that make the headlines are the modern equivalent of chip wrappers even more quickly than their print ancestors.

As long as you set out clearly any particular parameters you feel are important in your organisation and make sure they’re reasonable, certain and notorious (sound familiar? It should do!), you can manage social media gaffes as straightforwardly as any other employment issue.

3. We can’t measure the return on our investment
Ah, the old “ROI” chestnut. I’ve heard several great responses to this, including “What’s the return on investment from a hug?”, which I think is accredited to Tony Hsieh of Zappos. How would I value my personal return on investment? Well, since joining Twitter “properly”, I have got a new job, co-written three books, spoken at numerous events and built something of a reputation in certain circles for antipathy towards best practice and a love of social media. Oh, and made lots of great friends around the UK (and further afield) who share common interests and views. How many more sales do Tesco make because they engage with people on Twitter? I couldn’t say – but anecdotally, I see numerous examples every week where building the relationship has undoubtedly resulted in additional sales – and a positive story being shared.

Having said all of that, I have been to a few meetings and conferences lately where HR folk have been exhorted in fairly strong terms to “get on Twitter”, with the subtext being “…or else…”. Ironically, despite my social media evangelism, I am getting a bit nervous about the pressure being put on people to join in. Yes, social media – joining Twitter in particular – has had a transformational effect on me, my approach to HR and my career. But I joined up freely and not because I felt I had to. It works incredibly well for me and has become a daily part of my routine that I’d feel lost without – but I’m not sure everybody would or should feel the same. Other people get their news, challenge, fresh thinking and social interaction in other ways. As much as I love new people joining the debate, I worry a bit that some of the natural warmth and support of the HR community I’m proud to be part of on Twitter might be lost if people feel it’s something they HAVE to do, not necessarily something they WANT to do. Maybe it would become more like LinkedIn? And let’s face it, no-one wants that…

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