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Using Social Media for Your Company’s Good

Employees who feel their managers listen to their complaints are more likely to use social media to benefit their company than to air their grievances.

Bottom LineWhen employees use social media, they can do great harm to their company’s status or enhance its image. The best way to prevent damage is to provide employees with multiple channels, including traditional means, through which to air their feelings—and to respond promptly if concerns arise.

Last July, a disgruntled cook at a national restaurant chain posted a video to YouTube documenting the company’s alleged unhygienic practices. The clip quickly went viral, damaging the firm’s reputation in the process. The chef claimed he had tried to notify management of his concerns, but received no response. So he turned to the Internet.

It’s the worst-case scenario for any company in the era of social media: When employees can broadcast their opinions with a click of the mouse or smartphone, the damage can be ruinous. Yet employees are also perfectly positioned to use social media to safeguard their company’s reputation in cyberspace, defend it against unwarranted accusations, and boost its marketing or PR campaigns. As the authors of a new paper write, “Employee voice can be a source of competitive advantage or a time bomb waiting to explode , depending on how it is guided and managed.”

“Employee voice can be a source of competitive advantage or a time bomb waiting to explode.”

How can companies wield this double-edged sword without impaling themselves? The authors analyzed recent studies of corporate policies to provide a blueprint for firms seeking to harness and manage their workforce’s voice in the social media age. Most crucially, they found that companies that were able to reinforce their positive brand image through their employees’ online interactions could reach stakeholders in unparalleled numbers, providing a genuine competitive advantage and a reason to risk the occasional misstep.

To start, firms should consider rescinding policies that have restricted their employees’ access to social media while at work. With the rampant spread of smartphones and other mobile devices, this knee-jerk reaction is impractical and will only spur a backlash, the authors suggest. Besides, the National Labor Relations Board has taken the position that employees shouldn’t be fired for posts on Facebook or similar sites.

Indeed, as the example of the disaffected cook shows, employees need more channels—not fewer—through which to voice their complaints. When employees lack internal feedback systems where they can register concerns, or when they worry that doing so may jeopardize their careers, they are more likely to air their grievances online, the authors found.

In fact, the fundamental antidote to social media damage lies not in policing the latest technological frontiers, but in providing employees with more traditional means of communicating their concerns, and then responding promptly to their concerns. For example, when Gordon Bethune turned around a slumping Continental Airlines in the mid-1990s, he quickly established an internal hotline and promised that management would respond to calls within 48 hours. Continental’s hotline was getting 200 calls a day within a year; this firm-sanctioned mechanism helped build trust and improve morale. Not only does this episode illustrate how a top executive can channel employee comments constructively, but it also underscores the importance of giving employees a timetable and an idea of what to expect when they provide feedback. 

A hotline isn’t enough, however; firms should provide multiple ways for employees to have a voice, and make sure those methods align with the organizational setup. For technologically proficient employees inclined to use online channels like Facebook, an intranet system may suffice. But others may feel more comfortable using the time-honored suggestion box or an open door to their manager’s office. Stressing to employees that they have conduits in place through which to disclose problems anonymously—when they may not want an immediate supervisor to know about their report of an OSHA violation, for instance—also increases the likelihood that crises will remain in-house and not be detailed online.

To further head off negative online activity, companies must clearly communicate to their employees that their opinions play an important role in corporate decision making and that their social media presence is a new, but important, aspect of their job. The authors point to the U.S. Air Force, which has introduced a comprehensive handbook to help its employees engage the online public in a positive way, as an example of an organization that has embraced the potential of social media.

Similarly, Dell has trained more than 10,000 employees specifically in the pitfalls and promise of social media, and IBM uses its Voices program to channel its employees’ opinions in a way consistent with its corporate outlook.

But most importantly, employees have the greatest effect online when they reach out to stakeholders in an organic way, the authors write, thereby stressing their partnership with the company. When a company’s technical support staff helps a forum visitor with a glitch, for example, the joint problem-solving effort not only breeds higher levels of customer satisfaction, but can also outline potential improvements to the product or manufacturing process, providing a true competitive advantage.

“Providing venues and guidelines for all purposes will ensure good ideas are capitalized upon, dissatisfactions are internally aired, and customer outreach can be achieved,” the authors conclude.

Source: Employee Voice: Untapped Resource or Social Media Time Bomb? Sandra Jeanquart Miles and W. Glynn Mangold (Murray State University), Business Horizons, May–June 2014, vol. 57, no. 3

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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