LinkedIn or Locked Out?

Some social media advice can raise unnecessary fears or lead to the imposition of inappropriate restrictions. I was recently forwarded a copy of a newsletter from an East Anglian firm of solicitors, Birketts. Aimed at human resources professionals, the HR matters newsletter included an article about LinkedIn which might alarm employers whose staff use LinkedIn to build up their business networks.

Under a somewhat provocative subheading “What damage could this do to a business?” senior associate Sonya O’Reilly discusses how “an employer may not want his employee to ‘own’ business contacts made during his employment and, particularly, may be very concerned about the employee taking those contacts with him when he leaves”, using the example of a recruitment consultant. I think “damage” is overstating things a bit, and, to be fair, Sonya goes on to say that this activity may already be covered by an employer’s policies – in particular, any agreements not to deal with or solicit the former employer’s clients for a period of time after the employment ends.

Sonya points out that LinkedIn membership is a personal, not company-based. It is also debatable, she says, whether information stored on LinkedIn is really confidential; LinkedIn profiles are accessible to anyone with internet access connection, after all, and few profiles will contain anything  genuinely confidential.

LinkedIn or Locked Out?

Sonya very sensibly urges employers to “put in place specific policies in which it sets out what it considers to be appropriate use of social networking sites” (she later mentions specifics such as confidentiality and posting of derogatory comments). But, in my view, business efficiency might be undermined by her suggestion that employers prohibit employees from using LinkedIn, or restrict use to certain people:

“It may be appropriate to limit or indeed prohibit certain types of employees within an organisation using these types of sites (not least because they are not required for the performance of their duties and therefore they would simply be wasting time in looking at websites which were not relevant for them) whereas other employees, such as marketing managers, may very well need to use such sites to keep pace with modern technology and modern ways of doing business. …”

However, aren’t these the same kinds of arguments that were put forward when email was first introduced into the workplace? As a result, such policies might even interfere with efficient communication, and lead to jealousies between those granted access to social networking platforms and those denied such access. In any event, as I’ve previously argued (Why social media bans won’t work), such bans can easily be bypassed, and can backfire (Ban social media, lose the marketing war, lose staff). And it must be better to positively encourage responsible behaviour (Let’s be positive on social media: issue guidelines not bans), trusting all employees to act professionally, rather than treating them like children who need to be prevented from “wasting time”.

Moreover (and it pains me to say this as a former marketing manager), I have come across some organisations where marketing managers are among the last people to “get” social media – overtaken in their use of LinkedIn, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other networks by (often but not always) younger, more social-savvy colleagues in other departments (sales, customer service, accounts, engineering, etc) who understand the importance of online conversations and business networks. In short, “modern technology and modern ways of doing business” touch everybody in an organisation – not just a privileged few – and require a coherent, consistent, inclusive, organisation-wide approach.

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