Call it MySpace versus the WorkPlace: Complain about your boss on MySpace -- you’re fired. Post a questionable photo of yourself on Facebook -- you don’t get hired.
True, Web 2.0 social software is gaining tremendous momentum as companies use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for marketing and branding campaigns. Yet the hard reality is that many corporations and government agencies ban social networking sites.
HR departments generally look askance at Web 2.0 networks. Frequently, their concerns are legitimate; sometimes they are simply being paranoid. HR attitudes toward Web 2.0 are shaped by a corporate culture based on codes and compliance. Not surprisingly, the open and horizontal social dynamics of Web 2.0 networks clash with the opaque and vertical architecture of many organizations.
Here’s the troubling paradox: The same HR departments that ban Facebook and Twitter actively use these networks as part of their recruitment efforts. Some HR managers mine online social networks to gather information on current employees.
HR managers don’t always admit that they look at Facebook and other sites. Fear of litigation doubtless explains their reticence. But it’s an open secret that HR professionals and headhunters routinely Google job applicants and scan online social networks.
A CareerBuilder survey completed in June revealed that nearly half (45 percent) of employers are using online social networks to conduct background checks on job candidates -- up 22 percent from the previous year. Nearly 30 percent said they consult Facebook; 26 percent check LinkedIn; and 21 percent look at MySpace. About 11 percent search blogs, while 7 percent follow candidates on Twitter.
More interestingly, employers acknowledged that they weed out job candidates on the basis of what they find on social networking sites. More than half cited “provocative or inappropriate photographs or information,” while other deal-breaking discoveries included revelations about drinking and drugs, discriminatory comments, lies about qualifications, and sharing confidential information about a previous employer.
Online HR snooping can also work in a candidate’s favor, especially when a Facebook or Twitter profile reveals a high level of social capital (lots of “friends” and “followers”) and desirable values and attitudes.
It doesn’t take tremendous powers of insight to grasp that checking social networks is rapidly becoming standard HR practice. Perhaps job candidates and employees simply have to realize that employers are looking closely at everything they post online. We can also expect acrimonious court cases in this area. But whatever the danger zones, it is naïve to expect that HR professionals won’t mine social sites.
That still leaves the paradox intact. As corporations and governments increasingly deploy Web 2.0 platforms for business purposes, it seems inconsistent for their HR departments to be imposing bans and disciplining employees for using the same social networks.
This paradox can be explained by two disconnects:
- First, a disconnect between a company’s business goals and its HR department’s rules-based corporate culture
- Second, a disconnect between older-generation values dominant in top management ranks and “millennial” generation values coming into the workforce
The management challenge of fixing the first disconnect must be taken seriously. Failure to do so will only make the consequences of the second disconnect more difficult to resolve. The generational impact of millennials is unavoidable. It is coming fast, and companies must learn now, not later, how to accommodate the values that this generation is bringing into organizational environments.
The key is to align the company’s internal corporate culture with its external business goals. Some basic guidelines are necessary, of course. The challenge is loosening control without losing control.
HR departments may not like change, but change they must -- especially given manifestly inconsistent attitudes toward Web 2.0 networks. If HR professionals are allowing themselves to use Facebook and Twitter and other sites as an indispensible part of their work, they would be well advised to align this permissive approach with the rules they impose on employees.
If they don’t, talent retention will soon become a serious issue for the entire company. And the consequences of that problem will be much more negative and far-reaching than an employee’s ill-advised comments or photos posted on Facebook.
— Matthew Fraser is a Web 2.0 strategist, an adjunct professor at the American University of Paris, and senior fellow at INSEAD.