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What Happens When Water Cooler Talk Hits the Web?

Hey everyone. A few weeks ago, I was giving the awesome opportunity to write a post on social media management for Software Advice. The original article ran two weeks ago on New Talent Times and now I get to share it here. Without further ado…

According to a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, companies can expect more workers to share confidential information with one another, including salaries and other benefits. Millennials, the generation that grew up with social media and personal transparency (read: oversharing) are leading the trend, which presents a new challenge to HR departments that have historically kept sensitive information under wraps.

This got me thinking: if younger employees are sharing personal information and are active on social media, what happens when the water cooler conversation goes viral? HR departments need to be prepared to take certain steps when sensitive information hits the web.

Without a plan in place, a company will be slow to respond to inaccurate, proprietary and/or confidential issues. Not only can this damage its brand from a financial and reputational perspective, but the public release of salary and benefit information can alienate other employees at the firm who feel they’re not receiving their fair share.

Conversely, by staying on top of the conversation, HR managers will know what employees are saying and be able to act quickly and appropriately if it gets out of hand. In this article, I present five tips on how to manage oversharing online:

1. Be Aware of What’s Going On

The first step to managing social media behavior is to know that Pandora’s box has been opened. Conversations that used to happen at the water cooler are absolutely happening online today. It’s human nature to want to learn as much as possible about the things that affect you—and workplace issues fundamentally affect us all, in different ways, every day. Salary, health benefits, relocation benefits and inter-office politics are ripe for discussion and debate.

“The desire to compare oneself to others is very human,” says Elizabeth Sosnow, managing director of Bliss Integrated Communication. “I’m pretty sure the cavemen were doing it. The web just allows us a quicker way to compare ourselves to folks beyond our daily life.”

Sometimes, however, people take this a step further and enter the murky waters of oversharing.

“We all have friends who share too much about their political or religious views, their dating experiences or even the food they’re eating,” says Michael Brenner, author of the B2B Marketing Insider blog and senior director of global marketing at SAP.  “While social media has made some people think harder about what information they filter, others are actually thinking less about it.”

This is where companies, as well as employees, get into trouble. There’s a big gray area when it comes to what’s acceptable to share and what should be forbidden. Whereas one company’s culture may accept, and even encourage, outspoken employees to share their rants and raves online, others are understandably uncomfortable with it. Questions around proprietary information are especially salient. Financial information, for example, has remained private for good reason.

Often, the knee-jerk reaction is to over-regulate, but this can square companies against employees’ freedom of speech—a losing battle from both a legal and reputational perspective.

2. Have Departments Work Together to Monitor the Conversation

Foraging into social media without proper experience or knowledge is a bad idea. If companies want to have a larger and more influential presence on the web, departments should collaborate for optimal results. Social media monitoring is a great opportunity for the HR and communications (or marketing) departments to work together.

The company I work for, XONEX, is a third party relocation service provider for corporate clients. As the Director of Communications, I often turn to our customer service department for help responding to customers’ issues online, since they understand tax and compliance issues around real estate transactions, as well as regulations regarding claims for broken or missing household goods.  They can tell me what I can and can’t say publicly in order to protect both the transferee and the business. Otherwise, I run the risk of sharing the wrong information or promising a solution we’re unable to deliver.

Whoever is in charge of social media communications for your firm should help you identify the online community boards that matter most to your company and set up a monitoring system to track conversations. If you can afford them, social media monitoring tools such as Sysomos or Radian 6 can make this incredibly easy.

“Digital makes it harder to control information sharing, but not to monitor it,” says Ahava Leibtag, president of AHA Media Group and author of the Online it ALL Matters blog. “When people start those conversations, you can find them with the right monitoring software. It might even be a good thing that they’re no longer huddled in a bathroom and actually talking about it in a space where you can participate.”

Before you jump into monitoring conversations, however, you first must ask yourself why you’re doing it and have a plan in place. For example, our HR department and I have agreed that if I see something concerning online, I will address it with HR first. From there, we will discuss the severity of the offense and the potential impact it can have on the company. If it’s relatively minor, HR will meet with the employee(s) responsible to determine if it was intentional and give them a warning.

3. Look for Patterns and Address Issues Accordingly

“Once you have a steady stream of information coming in, create an ongoing report that highlights patterns and company mentions for your management team,” advises Sosnow. Identifying common types of conversations and complaints can help you figure out employees’ main concerns so you can take steps to resolve them.

Negative conversations, for example, happen on a spectrum that ranges from simple griping to serious resentment. Keeping an eye out for patterns in the conversation can make you aware of when benign comments such as, “It would be nice to have a guaranteed buyout,” takes an ugly turn into, “Mike, did you get a buyout? How come everyone is getting a buyout except for me?!”

Having a broad view of the conversation can also help HR managers identify trouble spots in the company and give management teams real-time feedback on workforce issues, which is a great tool for tweaking policies and mitigating any discontent.

With XONEX’s clients, for example, relocation opportunities are often presented to a potential transferee by a department manager before HR is even notified, which sometimes results in miscommunications. One department manager may accidentally promise the wrong benefits to an employee, while another department head may present the right package. This can leave two employees at odds before HR even realizes there is an issue. If employees are discussing their benefits online, however, and HR sees inconsistencies, HR can re-train managers about their corporate relocation policy to ensure consistency across the board.

4. Develop and Implement a Social Media Policy

A good social media policy will remove any guesswork when it comes to what should and shouldn’t be shared on social media, and remind employees why certain things should remain private. I’m all for these policies for two main reasons:

  • They protect proprietary information, and;
  • They give companies a reason to discuss with employees the impact that social media can have on both the company’s reputation and their own professional reputation.

Here at XONEX, HR opens our social media policy with a page on our website that states our company values. Everyone is familiar with these values because they’re addressed consistently in other HR policies, training events and and social gatherings. I also teamed up with HR to train employees on our social media policy so we could answer questions from both an HR and a social media perspective.

I  believe our united front, as well as our openness and frank discussion around consequences (some offenses, such as releasing proprietary data, are cause for termination) shows our employees that what they post can impact the business, their co-workers and their own careers.

When mapping out your organization’s policy, It’s important to remember that a lot of social media gaffes happen simply because employees don’t know any better. I’ve heard several cases where an employee didn’t realize their Facebook post could be shared by others or that a private tweet could be made public. For this reason, Sosnow suggests that social media policies educate employees on common pitfalls and include examples to illustrate what is acceptable behavior.

To that end, training is key. “Showing people the negative impact that saying the wrong thing online can have on a brand is a good idea,” says Leibtag. “Also, appeal to their common sense. A good rule of thumb: Would you say it in front of the person if he or she were in the room? If not, probably best not to post it.”

Of course, you’ll always have employees that know full well the risks of using social media and simply don’t care about sharing sensitive material. In these cases, having a social media policy that is clearly written with explicit details about expectations and consequences is critical.

“A company’s social media policy (and overall communications policy) should restrict employees from sharing confidential information, identify what information is considered confidential and clearly outline the steps the company will take if they discover violations,” says Brenner.

This can be tricky, because you have to know the law. Under the National Labor Relations Act, managers and supervisors can be legally barred from sharing their own salary information, while regular employees cannot. Sharing trade secrets in a fit of rage, on the other hand, is not protected and consequences can be levied. Once you have your policy drafted, you should send it to your legal counsel for review before making it standard practice.

(For more information on how to develop a social media policy, check out this article.)

5. Create Layers of Transparency

The million dollar question highlighted in the Wall Street Journal article is whether or not social media and oversharing will push companies to be more transparent. The answer is yes—both internally and externally.

Internally, as employees share more information with one another, companies will be pressured to review privacy policies and reconsider what can be made public. Some may create policies that are either consistent across the board or very clear about why some groups of employees receive different benefits than others.

One of our clients uses something called a “Harmonized” Policy. This policy spells out what each employee tier receives in a comprehensive benefits summary and gives the specifics for each benefit. For example, under the Manager Level, the summary specifies 60 days of temporary living allowance, and employees can see exactly what that benefit includes in the detail section.

This type of policy has both pros and cons. On the one hand, a transferee can see that in order to receive a particular benefit, they need to be at a specific level. They can also learn whether or not a particular benefit they desire want is even offered by their company. On the other hand, if the employee sees that the benefit they want is offered, but only at a higher level, they can feel excluded or see it as incentive to petition for an exception to their own policy.

Ultimately, however, companies will need to consider their corporate strategy before pulling  back the curtain entirely.

“To be candid, there are always business ‘secrets’ because it’s critical to protect proprietary information,” says Sosnow. “I think the question is, can we identify a new layer of information that would demonstrate a company’s commitment to transparency without putting it all on the table? That would be a nice cultural signal to both internal and external stakeholders.”

As we continue to move forward into the digital age with employees who demand open lines of communication, HR managers will have to take a good, hard look at corporate culture. Is it shifting? Are employees’ needs changing? Most importantly, is HR changing with them? Sometimes it’s easier to tune out the noise. But the reality is that the world is changing quickly, and companies that are open and engaged will have a distinct competitive advantage, especially as it pertains to recruitment and retention.


VP, Client Services

VP of Business Development Northeast Region


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