Paul Carney, SVP of Human Resources at Carter Bank & Trust, joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss how to put a positive spin on employee social media policies. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!

Jennings: Today’s episode is all about HR Risk and Social Media. The average American spends two hours a day on social media. That’s over twelve percent of our waking hours. It’s not surprising that something that takes up so much of our time is going to have impacts at work, and that includes what employees are saying about the organization online, and how they’re behaving even when the organization isn’t the topic.

Jennings: Joining us today to discuss how to manage risks around employee social media use is Paul Carney. Paul is Senior Vice President and director of human resources at regional bank Carter Bank & Trust and is an accomplished HR speaker and facilitator.

Jennings: Paul, welcome to The HR Risk Podcast.

Carney: Thank you very back. Glad to be a part of it.

Jennings: Paul, before we get started with our conversation today, could you tell our listeners a little bit more about your background and your career as an HR leader?

Carney: Sure. “The Accidental HR Guy” is what I refer to myself as. I started my life as an IT guy 30-plus years ago. I built IT-based companies. I’ve always been a businessperson and then landed in HR through a group that needed me to take on some HR roles with my training background. And I discovered the world of HR and said, “wow, this is great.” And it needed some help as HR has been evolving over the past decade or so. And I saw it from a business perspective and said, “wow, I can really come in here and help HR.” And that’s what got me started on my HR career.

Jennings: In your HR career, are there any particular issues or risks that you’ve encountered along the way that you might want to have other HR professionals be aware of?

Carney: Sure. In fact, it kind of ties directly in with my IT background, since my first company was built in 1997 when I saw this thing coming along called the Internet and I said “I’ve got to do something with this.” And as I started getting into HR, what really started happening a bit more in the past decade to fifteen years is this concept called “social media.” And that’s where companies started to have a difficult time understanding how to incorporate social media into the business. But also from the employee’s perspective, a lot of companies started saying, “well, whoa, hold on, we don’t know much about this thing and you know, we’ve got to control the message that’s going out there.” And they really started to see these issues with employees going out there saying things and the company going, “we don’t really want them saying that.” And it really created this issue between the organization, the employees, and the social media networks

Jennings: It does seem like an extension that companies generally don’t want to regulate the lives of their employees when they’re not on the job. But at the same time, what employees do off the job might reflect back on the company. And there’s always that tension with out-of-work conduct.

Carney: Correct. And so you’ve got a couple of factors here. You’ve got one, how the person conducts themselves. Usually most organizations have a code of conduct or code of ethics. It says you’ve got to behave yourself at work. But as you also represent the organization when you’re outside of work too, so they expect you to be a good citizen of the United States. But really what ended up happening was employees would go out and start to comment on things they necessarily weren’t happy about at work and they might say something about their job. They might say something about pay. And pay was the one that probably really got this going where some employees were actually being disciplined, up to termination actually, for talking about pay on websites. Lawsuits happened and the National Labor Relations Board got involved and said, “wait a minute, companies, you can’t do this.

Carney: This is called “protected concerted activity,” which is usually around labor unions when people are trying to come together and form a union, but they applied it to social media and said, “no, they can come out there and talk about these types of work issues.” That really put companies into a bind because well now they can’t discipline. A lot of them had these social media policies that were very strict that said, “you can’t say anything out there.” And they started to have to learn how to back off of that to be able to not get in trouble with the law.

Jennings: There’s been this risk that companies have run into for years where we’ve had employee handbooks or policies that say you can’t talk to your colleagues about what they make or what you make, which clearly is an issue under labor law. But this really takes it out of the work room or the break room and takes it to the web in general. And it’s anti-competitive too: we don’t want perspective employees out there seeing we have pay issues, we don’t pay a lot or we pay well.

Carney: Exactly. Now when I help people who may ask me questions about how to put their social media policy together, I’ll jokingly say, “if you go ask, the lawyers are going to tell you you can’t put anything in there.” But you have to avoid blanket rules. That’s the biggest thing that the NLRB will tell you is “avoid blanket rules.” Now you can hold them to a certain level of conduct. They can’t disclose customer information or proprietary or trade secrets. They can’t misrepresent the company or it services. You can’t reveal those things. Everyone realizes that you can’t do that. That’s against the law and you could be held accountable for that.

Carney:  What I try to tell people is this, “flip it around and look at it from the positive perspective.” And as you just said a second ago, this really is about employer branding. So you want your employees to be out there talking about the great employer brand of the company. You want them discussing some of the good things. It’s not always going to be positive, but so what you do is you work with your employees to say, “this is what we expect, this is what we want.” And you open that relationship and dialogue so that you say to your employees, “you know, this is what we’re expecting out there, but if something’s really going on, let’s talk about it. You don’t necessarily need to put it out there.” You can’t stop them from doing it. But really good companies learn “how do you keep the conversation internal?” How do you say, “well, if there’s something, let’s sit down and talk about what’s going on.” So it’s really flipping it around and focusing on the positive rather than the negative or restrictive part of a social media policy.

Jennings: I think that’s a good point. And part of that too is not trying to stifle any discussion of deficits, because every company is going to have deficits. There are a lot of review sites out there where people talk about their employers or their jobs and try and provide that information in a crowd sourced way. An entry that says, “hey, there were some issues on the following three areas, but management is really working hard to resolve them”—that’s being honest and upfront about your deficits. But I would consider that to be an encouraging sign if I were thinking about applying to a company because that shows that they are diligent about addressing issues.

Carney: I worked for a large multinational, we had organizations and branches around the world, 17,000 employees. And at first our social media policy was pretty tight. It was, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” People couldn’t even get to social media sites at work, even on your own device. It ended up getting to the point—and this is a Fortune 100 “Best Company to Work For” that—we allowed our employees to access social media from their work computers. And some people are like, “oh my gosh, they’re going to waste time.” Well, if you’re focused on your employee performance that they’re doing their job, there shouldn’t be an issue. But what we found was when we were putting great stories out there about the organization, the employees shared that with their networks and that created this tremendous wave of influence out there.

Carney: And when a new employee or potential employee’s looking at these types of things, they see employees actively sharing the great stories and the good things that are going on. That actually creates a stronger employer brand because you say, “hey, I want to be a part of these people that are out there talking about this so much and telling these stories.” Some organizations will still tell you they don’t want that. Take that risk and take that chance. As you said before, it’s the new world. It is a new way of looking at the world. It’s not going away. The Internet, social media, it’s just going to become more integrated in the things we do and we have to look at ways to support it positively.

Jennings: I see so many people, on LinkedIn in particular, they’ll repost or like the posts that their companies put out. I assume that’s from a real place of pride. So I think that you’re right, that that’s a wonderful opportunity to really help your employees show their pride in where they work and the organization that they’re a part of.

Jennings: We’ve talked about concerted activity. Have you run into any issues or concerns or policies or practices when it comes to, “I’m on social media, I’m not talking about the company or anything related to it, but my conduct on social media could potentially reflect poorly back on the company” and how to manage around that or how to train employees how to avoid that sort of behavior online?

Carney: Depending on your code of conduct or what you may have in your employee handbook, there usually is something out there that talks about any types of interactions and what’s expected of you, not only in the workplace but outside in the community. It really just says that you are representing not only yourself, but the organization. Just think about when you join associations. They always have your name, title, and company you work for. So that’s already out there. It’s not only just in communities, but when you are part of an association or you go to a conference representing your company, your name, your behaviors, what you do out there reflects directly back on the company.

Carney: And there are times that people, you know, may go to a social hour at a conference and get a little a on the tipsy side and behave in ways that don’t reflect well on the company. And that gets back to company and the good ones will sit down with the person and talk about it. Now the thing isn’t necessarily to drop the hammer on them right away. It’s usually to sit down and ask about the situation: “we heard this, what about this is true?” And then talk about your expectations and get the employee to understand how that doesn’t really meet the expectations of leadership and the organization and then talk about how to get past that. So that’s the more constructive way to do it than it is to come out with a hardened policy.

Carney: There’s a strong political world right now where there’s a lot of divisive attitudes and opinions and thoughts and ideas. That gets a little tougher because again, most companies will stay out of the fray. But it gets really tough when people get to a level of misbehaving out there rather than just having a constructive dialogue. I haven’t seen cases yet where companies have held people accountable directly for that. Although we had that case of that woman who worked for a marketing firm. I think it was when the president’s convoy went by she did something and they got upset and they fired her. I think that’s still actually in the courts right now because they’re still trying to determine whether that was an appropriate firing. Did they have a right to do that? I don’t think those types of issues are going to go away, so organizations just need to have that open dialogue with employees to say, “this is what we expect, this is what we need for representation.”

Jennings: Right. The political expression is probably more of a state-by-state question more than a federal employment law question. But it’s definitely an aspect for folks to be thinking about if they’re in a state that has those free-speech protections that might go above federal law.

Carney:  That’s a great point because what I was talking about with protected concerted activity specifically is federal law. But you’re right, there are some states—California is one example of having some very specific laws—that will try to protect employees and you need to absolutely be aware of those on the state-by-state basis.

Jennings: If you have a takeaway for our HR leaders who are thinking about social media policies or the risks around social media but haven’t really done anything yet, where would you suggest they start?

Carney: First thing I would do is flip the equation, which is don’t think of it from the negative, restrictive part. Think of it from the positive engagement part, like “how do we engage employees to express to them what we want out of this?” And then I would go out and actually look at some of the companies who post their social media policies. There’s a few out there you can actually search for social media policies and they’ll tell you what they are. SHRM has some good resources out there too. Go to conferences where they talk about these issues, because almost every conference that talks about strategy and workforce planning will have something about social media. And then get involved in those conversations, listen to what people are doing and not doing.

Jennings: Paul, if folks want to learn more about this topic or to get in touch, how can they do that?

Carney: One of the best ways is on LinkedIn. Reach out to me on LinkedIn at @PaulCarneyWorks. That’s my handle on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. You can also visit my website at PaulCarneyWorks.com.

Jennings:  Paul, thank you for joining us on The HR Risk Podcast.

Carney: You are very welcome. Thanks for having me.

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