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Danielle Sheerin

How can a brand gain trust in social media if it doesn’t trust its employees?


Corporates are starting to recognise the external forces that compel them to engage with their customers online.

They are expressing the desire to embrace the opportunities that social media offers and many display an appreciation that they need to change their business structures to allow better collaboration, internally and externally.

But many corporations still will not allow their employees to access social media whilst at work.

In fact, according to research by Prozkaur, 70.7% of employers actively block social networking sites at work (survey undertaken Aug 2011).

This figure seems a little high to me, but other estimates still show a significant number of businesses restrict access.

Research by found 43% of companies still block access to social media on company-owned computers or handheld devices and a survey of over 1,000 CIOs by Robert Half Technology showed 31% of companies prohibit all access.

Whichever you believe, this is still a significant amount but what is the rationale?

Broadly speaking, companies limit social media access for two reasons:

  1. They regard open access to social media for all employees as a business risk.  Typically, the main risk concerns centre around security and reputation and the legal threats associated with these.
  2. They consider that unfettered internet access will have a negative impact on employee productivity.

Source McAfee

Lets unpack these assumptions and see if they stand up because, in my opinion, the limitations that they impose provide a significant threat to a businesses operating in 2012 – certainly bigger than the threats they posit as reasons not to allow access.

1. Open access to social media for all employees is a business risk

Firstly, I wholeheartedly agree that access to social media can pose a variety of risks to business but locking down access does not necessarily mitigate this risk.

A total ban on employee internet access suggests to me that the company concerned has not undertaken a through risk assessment, meaning that they do not have firm understanding of the nature of these risks and do not have controls and processes in place to mitigate them.

This creates a risk gap.  Employees may not be aware they have a responsibility for their personal actions in social media or of the etiquette around engaging online with customers in their own time (and there are numerous examples of social media crises that have occurred when employees act naively in social media, including the GoDaddy CEO posting his big game hunting on YouTube and Twitter, the Honda employee that posed as a customer to promote the company or the Lloyd’s employee that was fired for comparing her salary to the Lloyd’s boss’s on Facebook).

In my opinion, educating and providing governance for all employees is essential and with a solid set of policy provisions in place, the opportunities that social offers business, far outweigh the risks.

You might argue that full employee access is simply not necessary in your business as you have specialist teams that are trained to engage online.

For sure, many corporates begin their engagement journey by opening access to a small subset of employees to engage with the public on the company’s behalf (usually restricted to marketing and PR).

I would argue that this represents only the first step on a business’ journey to socialization rather than a longterm strategy.  Moreover, selective access ignores the fact the additional benefits social media access provides to employees: understanding the industry landscape, establishing authority, listening to customers, networking with prospects and colleagues, researching competitors and tracking new ideas and innovations.

By restricting access for the remaining employees you are limiting their ability to bring the benefits of this insight to your business.

In our day-to-day lives we recognize the need for digital inclusion and the UN has declared internet access is a human right because it is considered a basic form of communication now.  Whilst I am not suggesting that business is violating employee rights by failing to provide access, it does seem that the idea of restricting access is looking increasingly Draconian.

2. Unfettered internet access will have a negative impact on employee productivity

The fact is that evidence doesn’t support this view (McAfee report that the opposite is in fact true and “many organizations that do not restrict employee usage report positive results from social media tools including enhanced communication and increased employee productivity).

What this indicates more than anything is that the culture of the companies that lock down access for this reason is such that they do not trust its employees.

This attitude often pervades even into internal comms systems and restricts the adoption of collaboration tools and internal social networks.

This is such a shame and such a massive lost opportunity for business.  Yes, connecting and engaging online can often look like ‘wasting time’ or ‘socialising’ but it could also be ‘knowledge work’ or ‘networking’ depending on your perspective.

Social networking is about creating relationships (whether internally or externally) and genuine human relationships require some informality and even fun to make them worthwhile.

If you trust your staff to manage these relationships and let them have the conversations they want then you are more likely to create a genuine community.  A company whose culture allows its employees to connect and engage freely (internally and externally) and has a structure that supports the free flow of information throughout the business, is more likely to:

_      build and participate in successful online communities

_      obtain honest feedback and genuine insight from its customers or employees

_      make unexpected connections across customer communities or business silos

_      spot new industry trends and opportunities ahead of the competition

_      create genuinely new and innovative solutions to problems

_      have employees that are happier, more motivated and more loyal

So if neither assumption really holds water, why do companies see the locked down desktop as an insurmountable barrier?

My guess is that because the real reason for limiting employee access to social media (and by virtue of this limiting access to customers and each other) is cultural.

This is coupled with the traditional slowness of large corporations to adapt to change which means that they are often simply behind the times.

Many large companies simply do not trust employees to act in the business’ best interests. This simply cannot be good business as it signals a fundamental disconnect between the business and its staff.

This means that the change has to come from the top down so that management actively seeks to align with staff so that they will happily act as ambassadors for the company.

Once trust is established, engagement becomes a natural process and restrictions can be lifted with minimum exposure to risk.

Without this change many businesses will find that they continue to have only piecemeal pockets of social media activity bubbling up in their organisations, which will limit their strategic vision.

Ultimately, they will lose the competitive advantage of being relatively early adopters in this space and begin to be seen as relics of the old way of doing business.


This post was filed under Digital transformation, Finance, Marketing & PR, Social media, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. Great stuff Danielle, so many discussion points. I think the whole culture thing is the main problem. It is new! it is scary! Kill it with fire! This is easier than the whole risk assessment thing.

    The one thing I would disagree with is the productivity drop. I wonder how many companies would be willing to share their internet usage stats and show which are the most used sites. I suspect Facebook would be high on the list and the majority of staff are not using it for work purposes (says a man addicted to Twitter). I agree though that blocking it is not the answer as it is just curing the symptom. The classic quote by John Dvorak covers it nicely

    “In all large corporations, there is a pervasive fear that someone, somewhere is having fun with a computer on company time. Networks help alleviate that fear.” Networks and lots of monitoring software.

    Posted 11th January 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks Aden, you’ve made some fair points. I still think that with guidance and education the productivity issue could be managed but like you say, its a symptom rather than the illness itself.

    I think the biggest frustration for me is that it seems to impact on the adoption of internal collaboration tools. That drives me nuts – encouraging employees to make connections outside of their immediate team is so powerful – we all know of the power of the smoking break conversation!

    Posted 11th January 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink