Social media for employees: the benefits and the risks (of doing nothing) 

Written by Jonny Gifford, Research Adviser, Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development

There is a paradox in employee surveys. Response rates have declined continually over the last decade, to the point where running a survey can fill us with dread. Asking employees for their views can feel like trying to get blood out of a stone. And yet at the same time, while we can’t be bothered to complete a simple tick box questionnaire, we spend more and more of our precious time sharing our thoughts on social media. Clearly something has to change in how organisations engage in dialogue.

The CIPD’s new research report, authored by Silverman Research, argues that social media presents a complete game change in patterns of communication within organisations. For example, there are clear benefits of employees being able to interact with each other at the same time as feeding their views upwards to senior management. They can see how their views land with colleagues and read about other people’s experiences and ideas. Communication is not two-way but multi-directional.

Indeed, the more one looks at social media, the less surprising poor response rates in surveys become. We tell ourselves that the traditional surveys we run are meaningful: we take note of them, we use them to listen to our employees, they are absolutely not a tick-box exercise. And then we proceed to send out questionnaires that consist of … boxes to tick. How do we expect them to react, in the interactive age we live in?

Employers’ resistance to social media should not be surprising. There are risks and our society as a whole is still feeling its way forwards on how to use social media. It’s easy to criticise HMV’s recent naivety in not shutting down the Twitter account before announcing a round of redundancies, but it is not only employers who get it wrong. Look at how Sally Bercow and others used Twitter on Lord McAlpine, seemingly unaware that they were engaging in a form of publishing and accountable for what they wrote. And at a more common level, we see comments in LinkedIn forums that seem candid to the point of rashness, blind to the risks of being sacked or sued. We’re all learning.

Unfortunately, this does not mean employers are safe standing still. As the CIPD report shows, employees are quite capable of setting up their own channels of social media if employers aren’t willing to play ball. This leaves employers in a far more precarious place, as they cannot influence it at all. The message? Help shape how your employees use social media or risk being at the sharp end of the stick.

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