Trust Your Employees (Or Fire Them)

I have had an opportunity to casually explore the attitudes of hundreds of large and small companies whose employees attend my New Rules of Marketing seminars and keynote speeches. Through my process of very unscientific questioning, I estimate that more than 25% of companies block employee access to YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites.

Twenty-five percent block access!

If my calculations are even close, that represents a huge number of companies putting their organizations at a disadvantage. I can’t tell you the names of the nanny-state dinosaurs, but you’d be amazed at some of the companies that are too scared to let people into the world of social media.

If I managed a hedge fund, I’d sell short a basket of stocks of companies that block social media such as YouTube and Facebook and buy stock in the companies that encourage employee use of these new tools.

Here are some of the reasons given by people explaining why their companies block access to social media sites:

• It is a drain to productivity, because people using social media sites and those participating on forums, chat rooms, and blogs are not doing "real work."

• It is a security issue within the company computer systems (because people are logging on to sites outside the corporate firewall).

• People may harm the company brand should employees reveal too much information (gasp! these sites are open access so anyone can see anything).

• It is a bandwidth issue (companies would need to purchase a more robust internet service infrastructure).

I think the big issue here is really one of trust, and the things listed by company representatives as dangers are just excuses. Ultimately, I think the HR and legal people at companies are naïve and scared about what their corporate charges might do in the wide world of the web. Since the HR and legal people don’t really understand social media themselves (and don’t use it for business in their jobs), they just slap on controls.

If you trust your employees, they might surprise you with the ways they promote your business on social media sites. But if you don’t trust them, you end up with only the corporate dregs who don’t mind working in an organization that won’t let them communicate with others in the ways that people are using today, such as social networking, video sharing, blogs, forums, and the like.

My recommendation to organizations is simple: Develop guidelines about what employees can and cannot do at work. Hold employees to a measurable standard for performance on the job. But don’t issue a unilateral ban on social media technologies. The guidelines should include how you communicate in any medium, including face-to-face conversation, presentations at events, email, using social media, commenting on sites such as online forums and chat rooms, and other forms of communication. Rather than focus on putting guidelines on social media (the technology), it is better to focus on guiding the way people behave. The corporate guidelines could provide such details as employees can’t reveal secrets, can’t use inside information to trade stock or influence prices, and must be transparent and provide their real name and affiliation when communicating—guidelines that will guide an organization through a lot of potentially sticky situations, not just internet-related ones.

As long as your employees get their work done satisfactorily, there should be no need to micromanage behavior. You don’t regulate how often people can use the restroom, when they can chat with a colleague in the hallway about their kids, or mobile phone use while taking a cigarette break, so why regulate when people can and cannot look at an online video? If there are individual cases of people not getting their job done in a satisfactory manner, deal with the people issue of that. Fire repeat offenders as appropriate.

If you’re an employee who works for a company that blocks access, I suggest you become an agent of change. Give your bosses a copy of this column. Share the idea of creating guidelines that encourage and celebrate participation in social media instead of focusing on the perceived negative sides with executives.

If they still refuse to open up, I suggest you quit your job and work for a company that embraces the new world. You’ll need to find a new job anyway, because your company won’t be around in a few years as the smarter competitors take away your business by reaching buyers on the web.