Social media and HR: avoid the pitfalls and reap the benefits

Blog posts

28 Oct 2013

Andrea Broughton

Andrea Broughton

Social media is much on everyone's minds at the moment; Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have become everyday communication tools for many of us, not only in our private lives, but also in our working lives. This throws up certain challenges for HR, some practical and some ethical, mostly linked to the blurring of the boundaries between work and private life.

There have now been a number of cases of employees being dismissed after posting something on a social media site that was deemed to be inappropriate or detrimental to their employers. When challenged in court, employers have sometimes won and sometimes lost the case. Often, it seems that employers can be prone to knee-jerk reactions - they see something an employee has written about what a terrible day they've had, or about particular difficulties with colleagues or clients, understandably don't like it, and decide to sack them. This might sometimes be justified, but it should be remembered that people have always needed to let off steam about their time at work - traditionally this was done in the pub with friends or colleagues and crucially, the conversation could be kept private.

The main difference with social media is that it is more public and more permanent - the originator can lose control of postings or photos if they are forwarded or tagged. It would therefore seem a good idea to warn employees to think before they post, and to encourage the organisation to think more carefully before reacting, on the grounds that employees have always done this to some extent, but traditionally in a different, potentially more private, way.

Another side to the social media phenomenon is the growing number of employers now using social media to recruit staff. In the US, this practice is already widespread - in 2008, for example, a survey for the US Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that the number of organisations that reported using social networking sites as an HR tool had grown from 21 per cent in 2006 to 44 per cent in 2008. Thirty four per cent were using these sites as a marketing tool to recruit or contact applicants and 13 per cent were using them as a screening tool. In the UK, according to a 2012 report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, currently three per cent of UK businesses actively make use of social media as a channel for recruitment, although this number is growing constantly and research suggests that young people in particular would prefer communication with employers to take place online.

In our recent research on recruitment and social media, we found that organisations rarely relied solely on social media for recruitment purposes - they usually combined it with more traditional methods, such as job centre adverts or adverts in newspapers, depending on the type of vacancy.

Organisations can advertise vacancies through social media sites, and can also use social media for screening purposes, using information available through these sites to cheaply and easily gain a broader image of a candidate. However, this does raise issues such as the accuracy of the information available on these sites, their accessibility across all potential applicants, plus more ethical issues to do with privacy.

This latter issue relates to the extent to which employers should look at employees' and applicants' social media sites. Some job applicants forward links to their Facebook pages when making job applications. This does pose a dilemma though - if not all applicants have Facebook pages, not everyone is being treated in the same way, which opens employers up to potential discrimination claims. There is also the problem that once you find out something about someone, even it is not relevant or related to their working life, it is impossible to 'unknow' this information, and this knowledge could colour judgment of an employee in an inappropriate way, or lead to the employer being accused of doing so.

Most organisations feel that they have to get to grips with social media in some way, even if they just want to use it as an information or marketing tool. Some HR departments may feel that they need a policy, drawn up with IT or communications colleagues, in order to inform employees about what is and isn't acceptable for the organisation, and to give some guidance to line managers. Others feel that a policy would be over-prescriptive, but that it is a good idea to include some form of training about social media in induction plans and line manager appraisals. The main thing is that you need to do what feels right for your organisation.

IES has been looking at these types of issues in recent work it has carried out for Acas. If you'd like more information and guidance, these two reports may help:

About Andrea

Andrea joined IES in 2006 and has over 20 years' experience of research and writing in the areas of employment relations and industrial relations, specialising in international comparative research. She has managed a wide range of qualitative international research projects in the employment and labour market areas, being involved in all stages, including initial research design, fieldwork, analysis and report writing. She is currently working on projects for Eurofound, Dublin, the European Commission, the International Labour Organisation, and the UK Health and Safety Executive.

To arrange a media interview with Andrea, please email or call 01273 763 414.

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