Statistics show 96% of Americans use Facebook, and 46 million check their social media profiles daily. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, more than one-half (56%) of organizations currently use social networking websites when recruiting potential job candidates, a significant increase from 2008, when 34% did so. However, when it comes to in-house communications, most companies still use face-to-face or email to convey key HR/benefits messages and information.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of communication, but in an increasingly Internet-driven society, it creates a disconnect between the way companies communicate with employees and the way employees communicate with the world.

Towers Watson recently released a survey that showed a stark difference between companies that embrace change, and thus social media, and companies that do not. Companies that embrace change and social media are anywhere from 2.4 to 6.3 times more likely to be effective in communication.

"When you recruit talent using social media, you create the expectation that you've grasped social media, but it hasn't actually been integrated in the organizational DNA," says Curtis Midkiff, manager of public relations and social media relations at SHRM. According to a 2011 SHRM survey, 31% of companies track employee use of social media services, and 43% block access to social media platforms on organization-owned computers or handheld devices. Midkiff notes the irony of this: "You bring them in using it, but then you have a policy that says they can't use it in the office."

Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder at Benz Communications, says that employer fear and uncertainty generally is driving this lack of trust and openness. "In terms of [employees] using [social media], they're still worried that they'll be sharing information that is not appropriate or giving too much negative feedback."


Risk and reward

However, the risk of negative feedback has been well worth it for Southwest Airlines, which has had an active daily intranet blog since March 2010 called "SWALife."

"When it comes to social media internally, you've got to make sure you're willing to engage in it," says Katie Coldwell, director of communications. She and her team post an average of four times a day on the blog, with an average of 55 comments per day and 33,000 comments over the 18 months it's existed, which she marks as a real return on engagement. The airline even rolled out SWALife App that employees can use on the go. She says there have only been a handful of times employees have posted inappropriate comments, and in those cases, the moderators veto the posts.

"We're always at the intersection of risk and reward, but we're trying to balance some of the benefits in recruiting and engagement in social media with the unknowns," Midkiff says.

The unknown is becoming less murky, according to the Towers Watson survey: 64% of respondents are more knowledgeable about using social media tools than they were a year ago, and 69% plan to increase their use over the next 12 months. But benefits practitioners have to be careful to not just open a Twitter account because the person down the street is doing it. There has to be strategy.

"Whether it's increasing engagement or sharing stories between shifts, it can be an effective way to keep people connected," says Kathryn Yates, global practice leader at Towers Watson. "In most organizations it's a tool, but not the only tool."

A major concern of companies is that it will not create that engagement; only 28% report these tools are cost-effective at their organization, and just 15% have measurement tools in place. But the real measurement can come with the feedback employees give.

"It's been a phenomenal gift to our leaders because at any time if you want to know what your employees think about a particular initiative, it's all right there; you don't have to do a focus group," Coldwell says.

That immediate communication is a perk that may outweigh the risk of a silent, disgruntled employee or an unopened benefits email. When it's online, where workers are so used to engaging in their personal lives, they engage in their work lives, too.

"All communication will be social in ten years," Benz says. "Everything that is over email now will be online social collaboration, and it'll be interesting to see most organizations communicate all the time in a way that employees will be able add to the dialogue in a natural, free-flowing way."



Can an employer claim ownership of employee's Twitter account?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously wondered, "What's in a name?" With a 21st century twist, one could ask: What's in a Twitter handle?

That was the issue before the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California last month when it heard a case between PhoneDog (a website providing cell phone news and reviews) and ex-employee Noah Kravitz. While working at PhoneDog, Kravitz wrote tweets under the handle @PhoneDog_Noah.

No big deal - that is, until Kravitz left the company but continued to tweet under the name. That's where PhoneDog had a problem, claiming that it owned both the Twitter account and Kravitz's 17,000 followers, according to Workforce Management senior editor and blogger Ed Frauenheim.

Even more, PhoneDog asserts that the follwers are worth $2.50 a month, and that Kravitz owes the company $340,000 for the eight months he used the @PhoneDog_Noah handle after he left.

For his part, Kravitz claims that PhoneDog asked him to continue tweeting after he left the company, Frauenheim writes, and also points out that "the account itself is the exclusive property of Twitter, not PhoneDog. The account's followers, on the other hand, are humans and … humans in the United States are not 'property' and cannot be owned."

At presstime, the court had not yet ruled on this case.

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