When AOL CEO Tim Armstrong apparently fired an employee during a conference call with 1000 co-workers listening, it was a shocking, albeit unsurprising, act. I say unsurprising because there are many companies out there, both large and small, who look at employees as liabilities in the socialsphere instead of assets.
As the COO of a hyper-growth tech company, I often get asked how do we control our employee’s social media activity?
My answer is simple. We don’t.
A lot of people seem to worry that by allowing their employees free reign to talk and communicate, they could publicly say bad things about the company. Armstrong saw someone recording his speech and immediately thought it could be used against the company later.
A much better use of their time? Worry about creating a culture and workplace of which their employees are proud, and understand why the business makes decisions even when they don’t like the outcome. When you do this, your employees become ambassadors who can spread your brand across their various social networks, amplifying your message to audiences you may not normally have access to.
Yes, this is much easier to do when you’re on the way up then when your ship starts sinking. On the upswing, if people like their jobs, feel they’re accomplishing something and being treated fairly, they will work hard and chances are you’re going to be successful.
On the downswing, if you have open, honest conversations about the challenges the business is experiencing, why the decisions to cut costs or change strategies were necessary, and how the business reached the decision of what programs or people the cost cutting would impact, people will understand (and perhaps even agree) and come to accept the course of action as reasonable.
Since we’re talking about work, there is no way to make everyone happy. There will be some people who do vent about how things could be better. The wrong way to look at this is as a “problem to be fixed” by silencing people. The right way is as evidence that you have employees willing to engage in improving the company’s effort to find solutions.
People only take to the ‘digital streets’ if the company fails to create internal feedback loops, validate receipt of the feedback and follow up with how the feedback changed (or didn’t change) the course of events.
Over the years, I’ve found that employees will respect any decision, whether they agree with it or not, if they feel their voice was heard. Embrace the chance for people to make their voices heard (as a practical matter, no company can silence people anyway). Trust is a two-way street. It needs to be earned by employees and employers alike.
While this is the more noble and perhaps naive approach, it is also the most practical and most honest. You can’t silence social media and communication in today’s world. You can’t fire every employee who is taking a picture or making a video. Give people freedom, hold people accountable for using it wisely and you’ll be surprised how far it can take your company in a positive way.