Social Media in the Workplace: What Are the Opportunities and Risks for Your Firm?

If your organization does or does not have a social media policy, here are some things to consider.

July 11, 2011
Sponsored by Robert Half International

If your firm is still weighing the risks and benefits of social media and the value of allowing employees to access these sites at work, you’re not alone. A survey by our company found that, although financial executives see business opportunities in employees using social media on the job, they’re also concerned about the possible downside.

Approximately half (51%) of executives interviewed recently for a Robert Half International survey said their greatest concern related to employees’ use of social media at work is that staff members may be wasting time during business hours using sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Almost one-fifth (18 percent) said they also worry that their staff may behave unprofessionally or post inappropriate information online. Eleven percent said they had specific concerns about employees posting financial or confidential company information and 10 percent worried about staff members making negative comments about the firm.

Despite these misgivings, executives also see potential in the use of social media for their business: 28 percent said it could help their firms provide better customer service. Other possibilities, according to respondents: 22 percent said social media could be used to enhance their firm’s reputation, 20 percent said it could help them expand their network of contacts and 18 percent said it could be beneficial in securing new business.

In fact, many organizations are finding social media to be a boon when it comes to raising their profile, building brand equity, promoting products and services and connecting with target audiences. Firms can also gain valuable insights into customer needs and expectations simply by having a social media presence and empowering employees to leverage new technologies to gather business intelligence. In addition, professionals in customer-facing roles can leverage social media networks to communicate directly with customers and quickly address service issues as they arise.

Although businesses continue to explore how they can best capitalize on the advantages of social media while minimizing any risks, one thing is certain: The influence of social media has grown significantly, both inside and outside the workplace. With this in mind, firms may want to ask themselves the following questions if they haven’t already:

  • How does your firm envision using social media?

    Many firms are still grappling, understandably, with the question of how social media can support their business strategies. Moreover, accounting firms in particular may have special reputational and confidentiality considerations that factor into their decisions on the use of social media. Still, it may make sense for your firm to have a presence on Facebook or Twitter for recruiting and business development purposes. In addition, your professionals will likely have personal LinkedIn accounts that may be able to play a supporting role for your business.
  • Do you have a social media policy in place?

    Although many companies have yet to put formal guidelines in place for how employees should use social media in the workplace, accounting firms, which are naturally risk-focused, may have a greater understanding than some other businesses when it comes to crafting policies. An effective social media policy will help employees understand what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, both in relation to an official company site and employees’ personal accounts, assuming an employer allows access to these accounts from company equipment. And if personal usage is allowed at work, firms need to understand to what extent they can monitor this activity.

    Still, there are no easy answers, and firms should seek legal advice on regulating social media, since the law is still catching up with privacy and employer protection issues raised by these new technologies.

    Besides ensuring that any actions taken are legally defensible, a firm’s decisions will likely be influenced by its own unique culture, strategies and goals, as well as employee expectations when it comes to social media usage (e.g., new entrants to the workplace, in particular, may expect social media access on the job).
  • Are policies and expectations clearly communicated?

    Simply having a social media policy is not enough to keep problems at bay. In addition to a written policy, firms should offer training that spells out employee responsibilities relating to social media and offer examples of acceptable and unacceptable online behavior.
  • What about accountability?

    Although a clearly communicated policy is essential in reducing risks stemming from employee use of social media, firms also need procedures for monitoring and enforcing policies and activities, as well as evaluating whether social media is delivering the desired benefits. Typically, someone within the firm would be accountable for overseeing risk and compliance issues related to social media.

As more and more firms are realizing, social media offers many intriguing opportunities for their businesses. But the challenge for most firms is to find a way to seize the power of social media for business advantage while minimizing unnecessary risks.

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