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Social media tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and others, can be great tools for employees to use for learning and communication. The same is true of employers. But both sides need to know some important do’s and don’ts for leveraging social media channels effectively.

Rapid Adoption

According to an infoplease timeline, Friendster, the first of the modern day social channels, emerged in 2002; LinkedIn in 2003, Myspace and Facebook in 2004. The adoption and impact of these tools has been rapid—at least outside the workplace. In the workplace, many employers have been more hesitant to open the gates to allow employee access. In much the same way as many took a go-slow approach to employee access to the Internet, the same has applied here.

Today, of course, while a wide range of companies in a number of industries have recognized the Internet as an important workplace resource for many employees, not all have equally embraced the use of social media. In fact, according to a 2013/14 survey by Proskauer, an international law firm, 90 percent of businesses, globally, are now using social media for business purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that they’re approving of employee use of these tools in the workplace. Only 43 percent of those responding indicate that they permit employees to access social media sites—a top of 10 percent since the previous survey!

With or without permission, though, employees report that they are using social media tools while at work.

How Employees Use Social Media in the Workplace

There are certainly some legitimate, business use cases that can be made for the use of social media. Chief among them: recruitment, with LinkedIn being a top tool for recruiters, HR professionals and managers to find and connect with potential employees. Social media tools have also become go-to resources for marketing communication professionals to connect with, and engage, external audiences. Research and information sharing are two other common applications from a business standpoint.

Pew Research Center surveyed 2003 American adults about their use of social media in 2014. Not surprisingly, the use of social media was prevalent—even in organizations that prohibited such use. The 77 percent of those responding who indicated that they used social media at work, whether or not their employer had policies regulating its use, indicated that they were most likely to use these channels to:

  • Take a mental break (34%)
  • Connect with friends and family (27%)
  • Make or support professionals connections (24%)
  • Get information that helps solve problems at work (20%)
  • Build or strengthen personal relationships with coworkers (17%)
  • Learn about someone they work with (17%)
  • Ask work-related questions of people outside their organizations (12%)
  • Ask work-related questions of people within their organizations (12%)

Their responses suggest a combination of both work- and non-work-related activities. Considering that many employees now have access to their own personal devices while at work, it has become increasingly challenging for employers to attempt to completely lock down employee engagement in social channels during the workday.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) points to both benefits and drawbacks for employers allowing social media use in the workplace.

Benefits include:

  • Information discovery and delivery
  • Opportunities for discussion among employees
  • An opportunity for business networking
  • Ability to expand market research and deliver communications to others

Drawbacks noted include:

  • Potential for spam and virus attacks
  • Risk of data or identity theft or other negative impacts on computer security
  • Possibility for negative comments from employees about their companies
  • Risk of legal consequences if employees use these channels inappropriately

And, of course, just as with any other potential workplace distractions—like the Internet, the phone or the watercooler—employers are legitimately concerned about anything that might have a negative impact on productivity.

Do’s and Don’ts for Navigating the Social Terrain

At a minimum, employers should have a policy providing guidance to employees about the use of social media and the impact on the organization. Some key points to include:

  • Social media use, while at work, should be limited to work-related activities
  • Unless specifically authorized, employees should not post on behalf of the organization
  • Employees should not share proprietary company information; trade secrets; financial information which may violate Insider Trading Policies; or protected information about customers, clients or, in the healthcare industry, patients.

SHRM offers a helpful draft social media policy that can serve as a good starting point. Be sure, though, to have any policies you create reviewed by your legal counsel.

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