Should You Monitor Social Media Behavior at Work?

You know that social media has gone mainstream when CNN has cover articles about it and when the NY Times features tools and tips like this, pretty much on a weekly basis: Keeping a Closer Eye on Employees’ Social Networking

New software allows companies to automatically monitor how much time employees are spending on social networking sites and what they’re posting when they’re logged in.

I invite you to go there for the details if you are interested – the reader comments are especially enlightening for a glimpse into the “real world” of employee attitudes. I would like to add a few observations though as this – like most things – is not a “one size fits all” situation. In short, how do you know if you and your company should be considering this type of software (Social Sentry) purchase?

UPDATE 21 April 2010: Local Hawaii company Altres (HR management firm) has prepared this free white paper on Social Media & the Workplace. Get yours!

Mahalo to them for mentioning this blog post and our company in their report.

I Am Not a Lawyer

I am however a successful systems analyst and social media advisor. My recommendations come from looking at the mechanics of the system, filtered with my knowledge of how the social web has been working to date. Take them “as is”; my goal is to help you, dear reader, feel comfortable with whatever decision you make.

I’ve created a simple matrix that can serve as your first (and possibly last) pass at the question: Do we need to be installing software to monitor our employees’ use of social networks, aka “socnets”?

The four key factors are:

  • the number of employees you have;
  • the type of internal culture you have;
  • the relative degree of secure information your company manages;
  • the relative percent of youthful employees.

Company Size and Internal Culture

Number of employees vs. Company CultureThe more employees you have and the less trust and shared commitment to the company’s goals, the more likely you are to have problems that may warrant monitoring. (See the hot red zone on the matrix.) If you have a small company and good working relationships, I would recommend policy guidelines and you can skip the Big Daddy snoop program. (See the calm, fresh air blue zone.) If you have relative few employees and an authoritarian, top-down style of culture, you may want to consider it. It won’t earn you any friends, but then again, you may not be interested in that based on your culture any way. You may also be dealing with above-average confidentiality concerns which would warrant some form of monitoring activity. (See the purple zone.) If you have a large company and an open, transparent culture, you may not need the monitoring. You may well be able to manage this via policy. (See the pink zone.)

Company Size and Data Security

Data Security vs. Company CultureTo me, if you are running burger shops, there is less at stake in terms of your business than if you are a defense contractor. It is useful to weight the type of data and interactions that your staff are managing on a daily basis. It’s basic math that the larger your company, the less oversight you have on any individual. Software can come in handy if you have concerns, even though you may hire with confidentiality being a core job requirement.

Company Size and Age of Staff

Number of employees vs. Age of StaffMy younger readers might both rebel and understand this point the best. Younger people take socnets much more for granted than their parents, on average. To be sure, I am generalizing here, as I, a 57 year old, am more active on socnets than my teenage and 20-something nieces and nephews. But remember, it’s part of my job. When you take things away from a demographic that sees itself relatively impervious to what others’ think, please expect some backlash and negative repercussions.

Your Decision is Yours to Make

No matter which choice you make, I recommend engaging your employees in the decision-making process. Most people are aware their email can be monitored (heck, email is like sending a post card) though lots of folks forget that on a day-to-day basis. And the fact that you actively do or don’t monitor it, says something about your culture. It’s a good rule of thumb to give people information so they can act accordingly. The more open your culture, the more easily you can learn about what’s going on simply via word-of-mouth and updates from your trustworthy staff.

If you do decide to implement socnet monitoring software, be sure to create the time for someone to actually do something with the data. Just like all the other aspects of interacting on the social web, there is often more time-cost involved than cash-cost, and that’s a resource that deserves to be scheduled accordingly if you want to see a return on your investment.

I hope this article has helped you manage the decision more effectively, so you feel good about your choices. Remember, you can always change your mind when you acquire more data. If you still fully block sites like Facebook and YouTube at work, you may want to rethink that for certain departments. You are definitely imposing outsider status on your company, and there is potential vulnerability in that stake too.