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HR is keen for companies and organisations to embrace social media in order to better engage with employees, says Peter Williams. But bosses have their reasons for not jumping on the bandwagon

Statistics suggest that UK employees are not happy. Even though 75% of organisations with more than 100 people on the payroll conduct staff surveys, workers feel management isn’t listening, according to think-tank Tomorrow’s Company and advertising agency trade body IPA. The most recent research, from HR professional body CIPD, shows what it calls ‘a worrying deterioration’ in employees’ satisfaction with their ability to feed views upwards – particularly in the public sector.

The basic premise for the HR profession is the idea that there is a proven link between the existence of the ‘employee voice’ and a range of benefits for organisations which include a more satisfied, trusting, cohesive and productive workforce. It is not surprising that the employee voice is being drowned out by the howl of the storm of economic bad news: the threat of redundancies, pay freezes, the absence of bonus or promotion, the necessity to achieve more with less. The workplace has been a joyless place for many for half a decade.

Despite those outside forces, the HR profession insists listening to employees more would help to shape the future direction of the organisation in a positive way. And it wants employers to take a radical step forward and engage with employees through social media such as Twitter, rather than those annual surveys that many of us will have dutifully filled in.

HR says that a lack of social media savvy is directly harming organisations, holding them back from rebuilding trust lost in the recession and fostering a culture of openness, collaboration and innovation.

All this makes sense at one level: your favourite social media tool does give employees an open channel through which to feed views upwards, enabling collaboration and knowledge sharing between employees at different levels and different locations. And this could drive new idea and innovation. But there are so many downsides to social media that it is no surprise those at director level are either blind to the upside or just ignorant of how it works. At the heart of this is a generational issue. All ages may use Twitter but watching people of a certain age use it (myself included) is the equivalent of being forced to watch dad dancing.

Digital natives use social media naturally, unselfconsciously and in ways many digital immigrants just don’t get. It unsettles me those I follow on Twitter for work reasons send out messages about their hobbies, private lives and personal opinions on world affairs. But I also know that’s old-fashioned thinking.

Equally old-fashioned are the bosses who understand enough to know that the problem with social media is the absolute loss of control. The past decades have seen an increasing desire across all sectors to control the message. Social media destroys all that utterly. Give employees access to such tools and they will use them indiscriminately.

The CIPD is right: trying to stop the social media tide sweeping through the workplace is futile. But don’t expect those running organisations to embrace the ensuing free for all with anything approaching enthusiasm.

Peter Williams, accountant and journalist

 

Last updated: 12 May 2013