Companies Ban Social Media = Bad Idea

There has been a lot in the news lately about companies banning social media in the office.  The USA Today reported on October 22, 2009 in their Snapshot®* that 54% of companies completely block Facebook, whereas no-facebookanother 35% apply some form of limits.  That leaves only 11% that don’t put any limitations on Facebook use in the work force.  Why does this feel like déjà vu?  Maybe it feels familiar because a few years ago many companies banned Web mail (Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, etc.) in the work place.  A few years before that, companies banned the Internet at the work place.  And it’s not just companies that placed these types of bans; teachers often ban mobile phones in the classroom as well.  Is this the right thing to do?  Let’s take a closer look.

Banning social media in the work place is:

  • Analogous to banning the Internet
  • Analogous to banning the phone because you might make a personal phone call
  • Analogous to banning paper and pens because you might pass a note that is not related to class or work
  • Could potentially signal to current workers and future recruits that your company just doesn’t “get it”

“People who do surf the Internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t,” Dr Brent Coker, from the Department of Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne.  More from this Australian Social Media study can be found here.

Before we dive back into the workplace, the teacher example is a good dilemma to review.  There are phones today that have such a high pitch ringer that the teachers can’t hear them while the students younger ears can hear them.  But, is this really a technology issue, question, or problem?  Or is it a historic problem that teachers have been wrestling with since the dawn of time?  Whether a student is whispering, day dreaming, sleeping, passing a note on parchment, doodling, or sending a text it’s all the same thing.  The teacher is not reaching them.   I heard the Chairman of Walmart, Lee Scott, speak recently and he said for his first four years on the job he was looking for new critics, when all along he should have been looking to produce a better product or store experience.

Capturing students’ attention has been historically difficult.  The teacher’s task is not an envious one, however the really good teachers each century have been able to overcome the hurdles presented them.  If you ban today’s technology, does it solve the problem?  Probably not.  Also, texting is probably less intrusive than whispering, or passing notes, as it doesn’t affect the others in the room as much.

Isn’t texting or mobile surfing the same as:

  • Passing a note?
  • Whispering?
  • Daydreaming?
  • Doodling?

Also, a good student might suffer as they may be potentially looking up something on their mobile browser that the teacher is covering to a) fact check b) see if there is something visual that clicks with their brain better than how the teacher is attempting to explain it.  Or, if they have already grasped the concept why shouldn’t they be able to learn something else new and exciting at their fingertips?

In fact, some teachers may benefit by leveraging this technology in the classroom; they have grown up with technology.   Rather than being lectured at they are used to dynamic interaction with various technologies and sources to provide possible answers.

Now back to company restrictions on social media.  Banning something like social media could send the wrong message to current employees and potential recruits as a company that “doesn’t get it.”   Also, how can companies learn what to do in social media if they aren’t allowing their employees to even use the tools?

That being said all new tools have a learning curve.  When people started using phones in the work place they had to be educated not to make thirty minutes worth of personal calls, call internationally or speak too loud.  More recently when e-mail was introduced classes were held in the workplace on tonality of e-mails, not replying to all, not wasting much of the workday on e-mail, etc.  With social media similar instruction and guidance should be given to the work force.  For example Facebook IM chatting with your friends may not be the best use of your time, and it will make it difficult for you to achieve your goals, nor is it wise to status update “glad I’m out of the jail I call work for today.”

An employee is either producing desired results or they aren’t.  If you have one employee that reads Wikipedia during their break time but produces 40 sales per week and you have another employee that reads books outside during their break but only produces 15 sales per week, which employee are you going to keep? If you are in the business of making money, you will keep the one producing 40 sales per week.  “Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days work, and as a result, increased productivity,” says Dr. Coker.

In fact some employees might benefit from having social media in the work place.  If you’re in outbound sales for home insurance it would be helpful to receive a tweet from a friend in California indicating that the wild fires have taken a sharp turn toward Orange County or that the telephone lines are out in Minneapolis.  Or to see a user generated picture or video of the fires taking place that includes a geo locator on them.

Or think about sales in general.  What’s are two of the top rules of sales?  Listen and know they customer are certainly up there.  Google isn’t so great at supplying real-time results, but social media certainly is (there is a reason why deals have been cut between Bing, Twitter, Google and Facebook this week).  So, if I’m a sales person about to make a phone call some pretty helpful tools are technorati,, and Wikipedia to figure out what the heck is being said about this prospect or prospect’s company.  Why would you ban tools that are valuable to your work force?  An answer to this may be because you don’t trust them not to abuse the sites for other reasons.  Is that a social media issue?  Or is it a work force issue?  I would argue it’s a workforce issue.  Also, whether you are at work or in the classroom if you treat people like kids by not trusting them, well then you can expect them to behave like kids.  And, is that what you want?  Do you think Apple or Google bans people from these sites?  Their stocks are up 140% and 79% respectively in 2009.  They must be laughing out in Silicon Valley because the rich get richer when other companies still don’t “get it.”

Now occasionally some bans do make sense.  For example if a University bans downloading music on their network because of bandwidth issues that is reasonable.

However, before instituting social media bans at your school, company please keep this in mind.  In the near future we look back and say “remember when we used to ban social media, what were we thinking?”  Don’t be a dinosaur, because after all, they became extinct.

*data courtesy Robert Half Technology survey of 1,499 chief information officers.  Weighted to represent actual population.  Snapshot® compiled by Jae Yang and Julie Snider, USA Today.

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20 responses to “Companies Ban Social Media = Bad Idea

  1. Restrictions never help. The way social media is being used should be the area of concern. Employees can even be awarded for using it the right way which benefits the company.

  2. Interesting article. I agree that trust and development of employees is the most important factor and ultimately the most important for long term success. However, very few organizations are that functional. I have witnessed social media wreaking havoc with the morale of an organization. Some people clearly abuse it and are not well managed. (Internally or externally.) The truly productive employees are very resentful of the ones who are wasting the company resources and essentially stealing from the ones that are truly working to add value. Obviously the best answer would be to fire the offending employees since they are unable to control their own behavior. However, I personally don’ t have a problem with blocking social media in companies that are not of sufficient management capabilities to have a work force without a component of employees that simply are not willing or able to control their use of time. If performance can effectively and objectively be measured then that is the bottom line. If not, how intrusive should supervision be? The fact is there are a number of employees who are not productive because they are spending significant time on social media sites. You can make other people work harder to cover their load, monitor their behavior sufficiently to insure that they can control their behavior, prevent them from engaging in the behavior in the first place, or replace them with someone who is productive. The latter is probably the best but for the people that just can’t control themselves blocking is better than looking for a new job.


    • Wade:

      Thanks for the thorough comment. You are spot on that companies that have a difficult time tacking performance will struggle with this more than companies that have a better handle on performance. There is also a learning curve on appropriate behavior. A call center has employees that abuse phone privileges or sends personal e-mails too often, the quicker a company can get their employees to learn the proper use of social media in the workplace the better off everyone will be (often they need to learn by doing).

      Thanks again for the insight and have a Happy Holiday!

  3. Please let me add a different point of view to consider with respect to the subject of electronic technology in general, and social media in particular, in the classroom. As a former human resource management (HRM) professional and current professor who teaches the subject, I have always strongly advocated for employee selection as the most powerful HRM activity for building a desired organizational culture. Trust in and between organizational members is certainly one of the cultural values strongly desired by many organizations, and directly relates to this discussion thread. However, unlike in a business setting, professors don’t “hire” their students, and so cannot have a direct impact, in terms of selection, in building a classroom culture of trust (not to mention the fact that the classroom organizational members are together for such a relatively short period of time that building a strong culture is a difficult proposition, anyway). Sadly, as a number of empirical investigations and personal observation support, there seems to be a much greater acceptance by a significant number (not necessarily a majority) of students of cheating being justified by the importance of the educational objective being sought (grades, degrees, jobs, etc.). While academic dishonesty has always been a potential problem, the increased efficiency made possible by modern electronic technology has increased its impact concomitantly. And even if in the big picture it’s a relatively small number of students who would engage in such behavior, it still dilutes the achievement of the majority of students who “do it the right way.” For that reason, I do forbid the use of cell phones during class and exams.

    The other issue with regard to the disruptive impact of electronic technology relates to situations that frequently occur with the use of laptops. I have, particularly in my graduate classes, asked the students to be on the “honor system” and use their computers for classroom-related purposes while in class, mainly to (hopefully) help them to better engage with the material. However, when sitting in the back of the room during student presentations, or when walking around the room during my discussion, I very often find students checking e-mail, sports scores, etc. While this could be an indictment on the ability of the material being presented to hold the students’ interest, my instinct is that in just as many cases it is a willful disengagement. I don’t feel comfortable banning the use of laptops, netbooks, etc., but it is frustrating to attempt to educate individuals who may not be interested in participating in their own education.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like the lament of a curmudgeonly relic whom time has passed by. I am, in fact, a “digital immigrant,” but am always intrigued to learn about potential new developments in delivery of educational content (and in fact am currently conducting research on the use of electronic technology, specifically e-readers, to improve educational outcomes). I just am concerned about being too quick to jettison the “old” ways/ideas just because they’re old. Thanks, and take care.

    • J.R.:

      Your contribution is the type that inspires me! Thanks for taking the time to provide a tremendous perspective for all of us. As you mention these items aren’t easy, especially when it comes to school. I loved your lap top example and it strikes a cord with all of us that teach, present, consult.

      When speaking many seminar attendees often have their laptops up and as I walk around the room I see that they all don’t have my PowerPoint slides up. The question for all of us is: is this just the way the world is? People can multi-task while also listening? I know that I myself am guilty of this behavior as well – if the speaker is going over something I know I may discreetly answer a few e-mails/tweets/sms texts and listen for items that I may not know – which are a plenty! The people attending the conference have paid to be there and as you mention I did not recruit them (like you would for a job).

      Even President Obama struggles with this as he often has mandates for everyone to turn off their phones and place them in the center of the table. The CEO of Ford (Alan Mullaly) will stop a meeting and wait for a side conversation to end before proceeding, much less someone texting…this has all but eliminated side conversations at Ford.

      I agree with you that in some instances (e.g. high school testing or Presidential cabinet meetings) it may be appropriate to have everyone turn off their smartphones/computers, but the key is for companies, educational institutions, etc. to not place inflexible bans across the board on everyone.

      Thanks again for taking the time to provide invaluable insight. Kudos to you for not having the knee-jerk reaction to place an outright ban on laptops in the college lecture halls.

      Now if we can only get the airlines to allow us to use our electronics during take-off and landing…

  4. Erik, this post is spot on.

    Last Friday I attended a conference session at McCombs by Dr. Bob Johansen, futurist and author of Leaders Make the Future. He told of a survey of young teens who were asked, “How much time do you spend each day online?” The surprising result? They didn’t understand the question!

    To them there was no distinction of online or offline, no separation of realities. He encouraged business leaders and teachers to adapt to the learning and knowledge sharing realities of this new generation of digital natives, with what he called reverse mentoring.

    Short version, find a thirteen year old and learn how to communicate in the future, or grow increasingly irrelevant. Companies who are banning social media will be hopelessly unprepared.

    I posted highlights of his comments here

    • David:

      Thanks for informing us, specifically:

      “He told of a survey of young teens who were asked, “How much time do you spend each day online?” The surprising result? They didn’t understand the question!
      To them there was no distinction of online or offline, no separation of realities.”

      All I can say is…WOW!

  5. I have had the priviledge to work in a digital agency where there was full access to the social media on a 24/7 for all of us.

    Far from causing a drop in productivity, we all witnessed an increase in morale and found a new channel of internal communication which we found very helpful.

    • Oscar:

      Great to hear that you found having access to social media made you more productive at work, not less. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Erik – this is a topic near and dear to me and to SAS (shameless plug), in particular our CEO Jim Goodnight. He endorses the social media policy here at SAS that is founded on one core tenet: if you trust your employees to talk to people (customers) on the phone or via email, why wouldn’t you trust them on social media? The balancing tenet in our policy is simple: don’t be stupid.

    On the education front, your point illustrates what Dr. Goodnight has been saying for years — and ante in on aggressively. As a CEO of a major company, he knows his voice matters, and he’s publicly asserting widely that we’re not talking to kids in the classroom in the ways that they’ve become accustomed to communicating – email, text, social media, etc, all at once – and it’s at our peril. You might appreciate this post from our SASCOM blog or his conversation with Bill Friday on NC Public TV .

    Congratulations on the great work.

    • Diane:

      This warms my heart that someone as reputable as SAS and Dr. Goodnight share a similar vision! Thank you so much for taking the time to send this!

  7. my opinion about social networks acces at the work place must be balanced in such manner that employers do not have feelings that they are disconected from entire world, but even use it as marketing tool

  8. First, I really enjoy your blog. I teach an online communications course for undergraduate students and I’ve been thinking about incorporating an assignment to discuss exactly the issue you’ve blogged about. I definitely think organizations need to re-think banning social media – it’s a business tool as well as a personal hobby.

    However, I am not as convinced about your position about elementary & secondary classrooms. I agree that technology is part of our culture and will increasingly be part of how we interact with the world. That said, I can understand why teachers may not want their students to have hand-held devices in the classroom. Remember what you were like when you were 16? What your friends were like when they were 16? Teaching is a hard enough job and competing with technology would make that job more difficult. That said, teachers are slowly learning how to integrate technology into the classroom – where its use can be controlled and help achieve learning outcomes. For example, I recently flew to Calgary and spoke with a woman with a PhD in education directly related to incorporating new technologies into teaching. She talked about using Facebook as a tool to help students better relate to the topics. Her example was creating a Facebook page for Shakespeare and having the English class develop posts based on his plays, culture, and life. That, in my mind, is brilliant.

    Just something to consider…

  9. ecairn, I’m glad you weighed in with those points, though they raise a whole host of issues.

    I certainly don’t want my “social profile” controlled in any substantial way by the company I happen to be aligned to at any given point in time. We’re free agents, after all, and it’s a bit of a fine line between my association with company x and my standing as a professional.

    I know you’re not suggesting that companies should hijack “social profiles” for their advantage… but that’s what all this could lead to if it’s taken to the extreme.

    This subject area is quite thorny. Do we have any examples to draw upon here, companies who have struck the right balance?

  10. Thanks for the article, two comments

    When email was deployed, I remember a large cie that put rules so that people could only emails their co-workers and their boss. It’s so laughable now a days.

    The real issue with social media, to me, is that enterprises do not control the access point of their employees.
    They managed to take over their email activity, it’s going to be more difficult with their “social profiles”. ( although massive investment in enterprise 2.0 is exactly targeting this issue).

    Your sales example is key. What people get by using social media is an opportunity to spend time outside, with clients, prospects, experts, competitors and this should be a + for the company they work with.

    Companies have 2 ways to react:
    – ban and /or deploy some forms of enterprise 2.0 inside the firewall (the color of social without the social flavor)
    – educate, empower and leverage their people activity in social media. Enable them to engage with communities as a workgroup and to share knowledge; see conversations as assets and become “social businesses”.

    Scary but only way to go.

  11. I’ve also blogged on this topic and, for the most part, agree that banning people inside one’s organization from social media is not the way to go. I do think some guidelines and parameters are needed, but I think the opportunity cost of an outright ban is too great. At some point, this becomes an issue of empowerment and trust, doesn’t it?

    • David:

      You are spot on with your “empowerment and trust” comment. It’s not social media that’s the issue, it’s your employee, or in fact, you, the boss.

  12. Very interesting. I know I would be more prodcutive at work were I not so completely cut off from all things internet except when I’m on my own 3G account… which means I can’t work on my client’s server when I am and vice versa.

  13. Good article. The most interesting aspect to me is the education applications and ideas you touched upon. Education is about evolution, change, growth, and applying. This is a must for people as well as companies, as you have implied, in order to survive.

    The most daunting task is to shorten this learning curve for companies and to get the education system to apply it to itself.

    I enjoy your site and tweets, keep up the good work.

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